After a week of new revelations about his government’s conduct during the pandemic, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears on the verge of losing the support of his party amid dismal poll numbers and public anger.
The latest revelations — that Johnson attended a garden party with some 30 guests at 10 Downing Street in May 2020, and that members of his staff gathered for “wine-time Fridays” regularly during the pandemic — are just the most recent in a series of alleged violations of Covid-19 lockdown protocols by Johnson and members of his government.
Johnson apologized this week to members of Parliament (MPs) for flouting lockdown rules, and his administration is already facing an inquiry by a top civil servant into several other instances in which Johnson or members of his staff gathered socially, potentially breaking the law.
The latest revelations — including the May 2020 party, which Johnson claimed he thought was a “work event” in the garden of the prime minister’s residence and offices at 10 Downing Street — could prove to be too much for a nation exhausted by nearly two years of lockdowns, especially after those rules prevented many Britons from seeing their loved ones dying of Covid-19, or grieving those losses with family and friends.
Previous reporting about a December 2020 Christmas party at 10 Downing Street put Johnson in the hot seat last month, and allegations of more violations of the UK’s Covid-19 protocols have only deepened his political jeopardy.
A recent YouGov poll shows that 40 percent of people who voted Conservative to elect Johnson in 2019 now believe he should resign; of the general population, 63 percent believe he should.
This week’s scandals could push Johnson’s government over the edge
Apologies this week to Parliament and the queen by Johnson and his office respectively have so far done little to alleviate public anger after nearly two years in a pandemic, and the Johnson government’s often confused handling of Covid-19. A recent effort by Johnson’s government to stop the spread of the omicron variant — requiring proof of vaccination to enter social gathering spaces like nightclubs — also caused many Conservative lawmakers to distance themselves from him, even before the scandal-driven pile-on of recent days, potentially depriving Johnson of the support he’ll need to avoid a vote of no confidence.
The UK has dealt with whiplash-inducing restrictions, lockdowns, systems, plans, and tiers as the government has tried to confront the Covid-19 crisis. Much like former US President Donald Trump, Johnson has been criticized for waiting too long to introduce lockdown measures and overpromising on the nation’s ability to contain the virus. The four UK countries — England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales — all have different rules, and England has recently adopted stricter measures due to the increased transmissibility of the omicron variant and the projected strain on the National Health Service.
Even very public scandals and very public dissatisfaction with Covid-19 fallout might not be enough to topple Johnson, who has survived a series of missteps even before the Covid-19 crisis — including allegations of corruption, in which he’s accused of making political promises to a donor in exchange for money to redecorate his flat, and several accusations of lies including the claim that money saved from Brexit could fund the NHS.
However, Conservatives, and Johnson himself, are tanking in public opinion polls. A recent YouGov poll found 72 percent of Britons have an unfavorable opinion of Johnson — a far cry from his overwhelming 2019 victory.
A recent poll by British pollster Savanta ComRes also showed Labour up 10 points against the Conservative Party, giving Labour its largest projected vote share since 2013. That’s in addition to other ominous signs for Johnson’s Conservative Party: In December elections in North Shropshire, England, the Tories lost a seat they had held for a century to a Liberal Democrat, Helen Morgan. Her victory was widely seen as a blow to Johnson’s government, particularly after the MP she replaced, Owen Paterson, resigned in November for ethics violations despite Johnson’s attempts to keep him in office.
What comes next for Johnson’s government?
While 10 Downing Street has urged Tory lawmakers to wait for the results of an official inquiry before deciding on a vote of no confidence, those results are not expected until next week at the earliest. Johnson, however, is already facing calls for his removal, which could come sooner rather than later.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has been at the forefront of calls for Johnson to step down, saying he had a “difficult conversation” with Johnson on Wednesday after Johnson’s apology, according to the BBC. Ross indicated that he would formally request a vote of no confidence in Johnson.
Other Conservative MPs have also called on Johnson to resign, but a vote of no confidence requires at least 54 members of the party to formally request the vote by sending official letters to a parliamentary group called the 1922 Committee.
That threshold hasn’t been met thus far, but as MPs meet with their constituencies this weekend, more could make the request. As the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reported Friday, members of Parliament have already received outraged phone calls and emails from people in their districts, calling for Johnson to resign. Given the vocal discontent, “it could all be over on Monday,” one unnamed senior MP told Kuenssberg.
Labour leader Keir Starmer, Johnson’s chief opponent, has also put pressure on Johnson to resign.
“Is [the PM] going to do the decent thing and resign?”
Labour leader Keir Starmer says Boris Johnson is a “pathetic spectacle of a man who ran out of road”
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) January 12, 2022
Should the Tories get the opportunity to hold a vote of no confidence, that doesn’t mean Johnson is automatically out. In addition to securing 54 letters requesting the vote, a majority of the Conservative MPs — there are 360 — would need to vote to find another leader, explains the New York Times. However, the number of letters requesting a no confidence vote are kept secret until the 54-request threshold is reached.
If Johnson is forced out over his handling of the pandemic, he won’t be the first; Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, was fired in November 2020 after disagreeing with Johnson over his handling of the pandemic. Allegra Stratton, the former press secretary, resigned in December after video showed her joking about one of the Christmas parties held under lockdown, and former Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned after video showing him breaking social distancing rules while engaging in an extramarital affair with a colleague surfaced in July.
But Johnson isn’t likely to give up easily, the BBC’s Kuenssberg writes, and this is far from the first scandal he has faced. While public outcry is significant, Johnson’s party isn’t yet aligned about what should come next — and no matter the outcome of the inquiry into his actions, getting rid of Johnson may be an uphill battle without a determined effort on the part of his government, one cabinet minister told the BBC, especially since he appears intent on staying put.
“It is very hard to get rid of a leader who doesn’t want to go,” they said.