UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in big trouble. In January 2022 he was revealed to have attended multiple social gatherings in breach of coronavirus law during the deepest lockdown. He lied and lied and lied. Worse: Johnson lied in Parliament. The constitutional convention is that any minister of the Crown who deceives Parliament must resign. But since the days of Tony Blair, some ministers have been mendacious in parliamentary debates and not resigned from their posts. Boris Johnson has brassed it out.
The approval ratings of Boris Johnson have fallen to a calamitous -50%. Conservative campaigners have found that his name does down very badly on the doorstep. One must pinch oneself to remember that only two years ago, his approval rating was sky-high.
Johnson is leader of the Conservative Party as well as PM. Conservative Party rules state that if 15% of Conservative MPs write to its 1922 Committee requesting a vote of confidence in the leader, then such a vote shall be held. Only 9 MPs have declared that they have sent in such an epistle. The Chairman of the 1922 Committee refuses to say how many such letters he has received. However, a source in Downing Street says that 38 such letters have been sent. The number required to force a vote of confidence is 54.
There are at least several Conservative parliamentarians who are minded to send such a letter in, but are biding their time. If a vote of confidence is held, then Boris Johnson (BoJo) could of course win and thereby retain his leadership of the party. In which case the rules say no more votes of confidence can be held for a further 12 months at least.
But the very fact that such a vote of confidence has to be held would undermine him. His predecessor Theresa May faced such a vote in 2018. She won, but resigned within a year because the vote had fatally undermined her. Constant carping from the backbenches had enfeebled her irreparably. For the Conservatives, a vote of confidence that leaves BoJo wounded but still in office would be the worst of both worlds. Those who want to overthrow him want a clean kill. Some are waiting until they are certain he will lose a vote of confidence. If he does, then he is kicked out as leader and barred from standing in the subsequent leadership contest.
Boris Johnson is a scholar of Ancient Rome at Eton and Oxford. He recalls how Julius Caesar was poniarded to death on the Ides of March (15 March). The Ides of March are rapidly approaching. Despite that, it is improbable that Johnson shall be ousted this spring. The UK Government is raising National Insurance (a compulsory deduction from all earnings that funds welfare). National Insurance (NI) starts the first penny you earn, unlike income tax, for which the first GBP 10,000 or so is exempt. Therefore, NI is regressive. Its applicability across the UK is also objectionable to the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) rules.
The SNP will represent this as those evil, rapacious English putting an immoral impost on poor Scots. The Conservative Party wants to keep the UK united. This inept move is playing into the hands of the separatists in Scotland. In 2014 Scotland had a referendum on leaving the UK. 55% voted to stay within the UK. But were such a referendum rerun (as the SNP demands) the outcome might be different. There is growing public pressure to scrap the NI increase. Thus far, Johnson and his cabinet have been adamant that fiscal prudence forfends cancelling this move. It is necessitated by the economic difficulties wrought by coronavirus.
On the first Thursday in May 2022 local elections will be held in most counties of England. These are to local councils. A local council controls things like parks, playgrounds, minor roads, licensing (for shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels etc…), public swimming pools, refuse collection and suchlike. Such quotidian matters are unglamorous, but are the quintessence of good governance. The Conservative Party has been in office for 12 years, and it is halfway through the parliamentary term. A party in that position is likely to perform poorly in the local elections.
If the Conservative Party performs merely badly in May 2022 then Boris Johnson may survive. If the result is catastrophic, then the pressure for him to go might be unstoppable.
Who would want to take over with the local elections defeat looming and with the unpopular NI increase about to kick in? At the moment, the premiership is a poisoned chalice. Once the NI rise has taken effect, a new PM can say it was the wrong move but is not irreversible.
Those who wish to oust Johnson are waiting for the propitious moment. If the May local elections are dreadful for the party, then that will be the moment to act.
BoJo would like to cling on until July 2022. That means he will have been PM for 3 years and thereby outlasted Theresa May. It would be profoundly ignominious for him to last less time than a woman he despises as a boring lightweight. May has grown in stature since she resigned. She commands respect as a former PM. Some have whispered that she may attempt a comeback. But I doubt it.
BoJo is under police investigation for his lockdown parties. The police can issue him with a fine. If they do, then the pressure for him to resign will intensify. But he is shameless and may brass it out. He does not have to pay the fine. He can fight it in court. Furthermore, he could of course win that court case. If he loses, he will have to pay the fine and a surcharge. Moreover, he will get a criminal record by going to court and losing. A criminal record would prevent him travelling to the USA when he leaves office. Former British PMs often make millions of Dollars by speechifying in the United States. New York born, BoJo renounced his US citizenship several years ago to prove his undivided loyalty to the United Kingdom. BoJo would really rather not risk being banned from revisiting the United States.
The next Parliamentary election is in December 2024. Even in the best case scenario for BoJo, it is hard to see the blond lasting that long.
The author is a political analyst based in the UK