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Is This The Beginning Of The End For Boris Johnson?

6 min read

This weekend marks two years since Boris Johnson’s spectacular general election victory, but after a politically catastrophic seven days in Downing Street, there are now serious questions over whether he’ll make it to the next one.

With relations with his MPs at rock bottom, leadership threats of Theresa May proportions and a banana skin by-election this week hanging over him, some aren’t even sure he’ll last a year. 

Johnson has maintained a consistently high poll rating through his term so far, even when the UK reached Europe’s highest Covid death toll, or locked-down Brits were left reeling at the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle debacle. 

His supporters point to Johnson’s ability to defy political gravity, but there’s an increasing sense that the latest set of scandals, including allegations of Christmas parties in Downing Street while the rest of the country was forced to stay at home, allegations of lying over Number 10’s redecoration, and a botched attempt at reforming parliamentary standards to get ally Owen Paterson off the hook, might now put that to the test. 

One Conservative analyst said there has always been a feeling in the party that Johnson will eventually “fall out of the sky” and they will be forced to ditch him.

“The question everyone wants to know is if now is that time,” they added.

As Labour enjoyed a rare poll lead this week, bookmaker Ladbrokes shortened the odds to even on Johnson leaving office in 2022.

A new Survation study put Labour on 40% and the Conservatives on 34%, while Redfield and Wilton found Labour polling 4 points clear of the Tories, the largest lead for Starmer’s party they have recorded since the last election.

It’s a swift fall given just two months ago MPs hailed an imperious, all-conquering leader at Tory party conference, leading to speculation he might ride the wave of popularity with an early election in 2023 and secure himself a full decade in power.

Critics suggest the handling of the Paterson case kicked off Johnson’s current ills by inadvertently sparking a discourse about lobbying, second jobs and probity in public life.

The baffling ‘Peppa Pig speech’ to a conference of business leaders last month also led to questions about Johnson’s competence, and he has since managed to upset both wings of his party with further tax rises and a controversial update to social care funding.

But it is his chaotic handling of these problems, rather than the issues themselves, which has angered MPs the most.  

Two Tories told PoliticsHome they felt it was his “cack-handed” response to the Paterson row and then the Christmas party claims that has turned the tide.

Johnson denies any knowledge of the parties and insists that no rules were broken, but has launched an inquiry into the alleged events.

After footage was leaked to ITV showing senior Downing Street staff laughing about the alleged gathering, which led to resignation of his former spokesperson Allegra Stratton, he apologised for any “offence caused”.

"It's just a barefaced lie” a former Conservative member told BBC Radio 5 Live shortly after the apology by Johnson at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. She said she had relinquished her Tory membership in response to the scandal.

“I can't support the party while Boris is leader,” she added. 

One MP said their constituency staff have “had their ears chewed off” this week by angry local members, and there have also been multiple reports of “letters going in,” referring to the method of ousting a prime minister by writing to the chair of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs, Sir Graham Brady.

The threshold of letters needed to trigger a Conservative leadership contest in this way is 54, and has so far seemed unreachable, but in a blog for ConservativeHome this week, former MP and commentator Paul Goodman said “a vote of no confidence in Johnson has suddenly become more likely than not”. 

Yesterday the i newspaper reported Tory leadership contenders Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have begun manoeuvres on replacing Johnson as prime minister. 

But a former Downing Street aide dismissed such suggestions, and said that background chatter about “letters going in” was ever-present. 

“The fact is [Johnson is] a born winner and he will continue to be,” they said. 

That claim will be tested this week with the by-election in North Shropshire, which, because it was triggered by the resignation of ex-Cabinet minister Paterson as a result of his role in the standards row, will now be synonymous with sleaze

Johnson also faces what could be the biggest rebellion by backbenchers of his leadership when the latest round of Covid “Plan B” restrictions are put before the Commons in coming days. 

Dozens of MPs have already gone on the record saying they will not back mandatory Covid certification for venues, brought in to tackle a surge in cases of the new Omicron variant. 

The Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs say those voting against the government could be in triple digits, and include not just the usual suspects, but those who are normally loyal supporters of the government. 

With Labour having already confirmed they will back the new restrictions on public health grounds, the new measures are all but guaranteed to pass, but it will send Tories off for the Christmas recess still at loggerheads with their leader.

“We’re not exactly feeling very fucking festive, put it that way,” one texted.There is some speculation that a by-election loss in North Shropshire will be enough to trigger moves to oust Johnson, but one of his former advisers said much of the rancour is simply “mid-term blues”, and that every powerful government has a wobble in-between elections.

“We’ve actually achieved more than you think, lots of legislation has been passed but it’s been missed due to Covid,” they said.

“We’re already delivering on the manifesto and there’s plenty more time before we go back to the polls.” 

In remarks to Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” released on Thursday, the seemingly-unassailable Johnson invoked a humble reminder of his leadership’s reliance on the support of others.  

“We believe that our peoples are entitled to elect and remove their governments through the ballot box, overseen by independent courts and a free media,” Johnson said.

“We’re only here because our electorates have, at least for the time being, raised us to positions of responsibility for their affairs – but they have every right to cast us down and out again, and we would not wish it any other way.”

Johnson may be about to experience those fundamental principles of democracy sooner than he might have imagined. 

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