LONDON. One of its legislators calls him “the walking dead.” The Scottish Conservative leader says he should leave. Some cabinet members were especially slow to express their support after a humiliating day in Parliament.
And that was before Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to apologize again to Queen Elizabeth II.
Two years ago, Mr. Johnson led the Conservative Party to its biggest election victory in decades. Now, after apologizing for attending a Downing Street party during the UK’s first and toughest coronavirus lockdown, and then two other gatherings held by his aides with various restrictions as the Queen prepared to bury her husband, Mr Johnson is in big trouble.
Here’s a guide to how much trouble and what can happen next.
This is much more than a few drinks in the garden.
On Wednesday, Mr Johnson apologized for attending the May 2020 meeting, which clearly violated the blocking rules he had imposed on England. The party took place in the garden at 10 Downing Street, where the British prime ministers live and work, and the staff were asked to “bring their own drinks.”
Mr. Johnson said he thought it was a work event, but that it did little to soften critics.
Then on Thursday, a spokesman for Mr Johnson announced that his office had “apologised to the palace” for two more parties held on Downing Street without the prime minister present in April 2021, the night before the Queen sat alone at socially distancing funerals. her husband, Prince Philip.
These were the latest in a series of reports of parties in Downing Street when restrictions were in place, statements that lowered the Conservatives’ ratings in the opinion polls and led to the tearful resignation of an aide who was caught on video laughing at Christmas.” collection of wine and cheese. Sue Gray, a senior government official, was tasked with investigating reports from at least seven parties that may have broken the rules in 2020.
The revelations this week have exacerbated the crisis for several reasons.
On Wednesday, after weeks of insisting that all rules be followed, Mr Johnson admitted to attending an event to which dozens of people appeared to have been invited, while restrictions forbade contact with more than one person, even outside Houses. , in almost all cases. Some lawmakers have responded to Mr. Johnson’s apology in Parliament with testimony from people barred from visiting dying relatives.
Thursday’s revelations led to both the royal family and a restriction that lasted and was keenly felt until 2021: restrictions on attendance at funerals. The Daily Telegraph, which published news about the April parties, accompanied its report with a photo of the queen sitting alone at a ceremony in honor of her husband.
Mr Johnson’s legislators may simply oust him.
In Britain, it is difficult to get rid of an incumbent prime minister, but far from impossible. The highest office in the country goes to the leader of a political party with a parliamentary majority. A party can overthrow its leader and elect another by replacing prime ministers without a general election.
Under current Conservative Party rules, Members of Parliament can pass a mandatory vote of no confidence in Mr. Johnson if 54 of them write with a formal request. Request letters are confidential.
So far, only four Conservatives in parliament have publicly called on Mr. Johnson to step down. Only one senior legislator knows how many of them wrote the letters, and he will only make the number public if it reaches the threshold for challenge.
In a vote of no confidence, held by secret ballot, Mr. Johnson will remain in office, winning a simple majority of conservative legislators. He will then be safe from another such test for a year, unless the rules are changed.
His office can fatally undermine him.
Cabinet riots destabilize prime ministers and could prove decisive in pushing them out. The catalyst for Margaret Thatcher’s death in 1990 was the resignation of Jeffrey Howe, who was unhappy with his former ally, and Theresa May lost several ministers, including Mr. Johnson himself, who stepped down as foreign secretary in 2018.
As prime minister, Mr. Johnson has so far more or less maintained discipline in the cabinet. But one senior minister, former Brexit negotiator David Frost, stepped down late last year, citing policy differences. And it took hours for Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to express lukewarm support for Mr. Johnson following Wednesday’s apology. It might just be a coincidence, of course, but Mr. Sunak is the top contender for the presidency in the event of Mr. Johnson’s fall.
Or he could have succumbed to quiet pressure.
It was once known as the “Gray Suit Men” visit, a phrase that dates back to an era when all key influencers we people. In the days when a group known as the magic circle selected the leader of the Conservative Party, such bigwigs, too, could refuse support and ask the prime minister to step down. Things aren’t exactly the same these days, but leaders can still be persuaded to leave on their own terms and retain at least some dignity, rather than risk being kicked out.
Ms May resigned in 2019 after surviving a leadership vote when it became clear her position was hopeless. Similar pressure, accompanied by the resignation of ministers, was used to evict Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the Labor Party, from Downing Street in 2007.
Understand Boris Johnson’s Recent Troubles
The killing blow, if it comes, can go away in a few months.
Timing for a coup is never easy. Critics are unlikely to force a vote of confidence until they think Mr. Johnson is corrupt enough to lose. This moment may be close, but, most importantly, there is no consensus on who will replace Mr. Johnson, and therefore there is no single cabal organizing the challenge.
Mr Sunak is the favorite and Liz Truss, the foreign minister, is the leading contender, but several more are likely to run. They all need to be careful. In the past, ambitious rivals have suffered from being seen as disloyal to the prime minister (but not to Mr Johnson, who opposed and then succeeded Ms May).
For most conservative legislators, the question is whether the change will help them. None of his potential successors have shown what can match the appeal he has shown leading the party to a landslide victory in 2019.
Most conservative lawmakers seem to be waiting for Ms. Gray to investigate internally before deciding which way to jump. Despite her reputation as an independent person, she is in the rare and uncomfortable position of an unelected civil servant producing a report that could prove fatal to her chosen boss. Therefore, some analysts expect her to limit her conclusions to the facts she will establish, without making a straightforward judgment about Mr. Johnson’s behavior.
Mr. Johnson bounced back early.
Avoiding trouble is one of the defining skills of a prime minister. Former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron once called Mr. Johnson the “buttered pig” of politics: his career has seen many dismissals and humiliations, each followed by an even greater triumph.
To get out of this predicament, Mr. Johnson needs to prevent the resignation of the cabinet and the flood of no-confidence letters. He would then hope that Miss Gray’s report was diplomatic enough for him to survive, albeit after more apologies and a purge of his crew. He could then please his party’s lawmakers by lifting all coronavirus-related restrictions later this month.
But he may have even bigger troubles ahead.
Aside from the Downing Street party crisis, the situation looks difficult for the government. Electricity bills are skyrocketing, inflation is skyrocketing, and interest rates have risen just as Mr. Johnson is about to raise taxes.
Mr. Johnson’s enemies circle, and Mr. Sunak and Miss Truss maneuver. Conservatives face local elections in May that will test Mr. Johnson’s popularity. Opinion polls show a collapse of support for him personally and suggest that he is now dragging his party down. According to some recent polls, the Conservatives are 10 points or more behind the Labor opposition.
Mr. Johnson became prime minister in 2019 because his party correctly judged that he would win the general election. If he comes to the conclusion that he will lose them next time, his days are numbered.