Britain’s Boris Johnson has a reputation as an escape artist — a political Houdini who defies rules and conventions and gets away with it.
Last May, he led Conservatives to an historic election victory against the country’s main opposition Labour Party, making deep inroads into Labour heartlands in northern England in votes for devolved, regional and town governments, despite weeks of sleaze allegations relating to the awarding of government contracts to political allies and the refurbishment of his residence at 10 Downing Street by party donors in breach of the ministerial rules.
His skills, though, as an escapologist will be tested this week.
Even his supporters say Johnson is now facing the biggest crisis of his tumultuous premiership, and largely due to a series of unforced errors that are enraging voters as he seeks to persuade them of the need for tougher pandemic restrictions as the omicron variant of the coronavirus starts to spread. Infections from the omicron strain are doubling every two-and-a-half days.
By the end of this week Johnson could be fighting for his political life, brought low by a toxic mix of scandal, government chaos and infections, prompting growing doubts whether he will be the prime minister leading the ruling Conservatives into the next election, scheduled for 2024.
His tenure could be truncated well before then, though, depending on what unfolds the next five days.
A by-election Thursday in a safe Conservative seat in the English Midlands could seal his fate with vengeful allies of his predecessor in Downing Street, Theresa May, who he helped to oust, making it clear a defeat will trigger a formal effort to topple him as party leader and consequently as prime minister.
Even before then, around 70 Conservative lawmakers are poised to rebel Tuesday and vote not only against the reimposition of tough pandemic restrictions but the introduction of new ones, including vaccine passports to enter nightclubs and venues hosting large events. Johnson has further enraged rebels by declining to rule out even more pandemic restrictions ahead of Christmas and he has even hinted at the possibility of imposing mandatory vaccines, to the fury of Conservative MPs.
The rebels say the country must learn to live with the coronavirus and that a cycle of fresh restrictions whenever a new variant appears is not sustainable, nor the right way to govern.
“Before knowing the extent to which the omicron variant will escape vaccines or cause harm, the Government is panicking and rushing to impose restrictions again, causing mental anguish and precipitating huge damage to swathes of our economy that bring meaning to our lives, our families and our friendships,” said Steve Baker, a Conservative lawmaker and leading rebel.
Baker says Conservatives need to be truer to their belief in the freedom of the individual, and he has accused ministers of “creating a miserable dystopia.”
“Instead of pursuing freedom under the law, ill-thought-through state impositions on our lives are becoming more widespread, minute and more frequent,” he warned.
Johnson was always going to have a major challenge to persuade the sizable libertarian wing of his party — which includes some former ministers — of the need for renewed pandemic restrictions. But what has made his task much harder, and endangered his job, rests less with ideology and more with a seemingly never-ending series of missteps and U-turns as well as scandals and semi-public internecine skirmishes inside Downing Street that have roiled his government and propelled the main opposition Labour Party into a nine-point lead in opinion polls.
Johnson’s showmanship, once widely seen as an attribute, has also been misfiring as the public mood has soured. Last month, a rambling speech at a conference of the country’s top business leaders led to widespread criticism. In the speech he lost his notes, had to apologize for losing his way and extensively praised an amusement park, known as Peppa Pig World, compared himself to Moses, and imitated the noise of an accelerating car.
The performance was dubbed an embarrassment by Conservative lawmakers, who urged him to get a grip and warned him that he was losing the confidence of the party.
“It was a flop. It was a ramble. There were lots of disjointed initiatives, some that obviously had no relevance at all,” Juergen Maier, a former chief executive of Siemens, a German multinational conglomerate, told reporters.
Most Britons surveyed now tell pollsters Johnson should resign because of controversies over pandemic rule-breaking parties in Downing Street. An opinion poll for the Observer newspaper Sunday showed the prime minister is hemorrhaging public support and his personal ratings are tumbling, falling to minus 35%, down 14 points from what was already a record low of minus 21% last month.
Pollster Adam Drummond of Opinion, which conducted the poll, described the fall as “devastating.” “Unless the Conservatives can turn these numbers around quickly, backbenchers might start asking if the party is over for the prime minister,” he said.
The immediate cause for the hemorrhaging of public support have been revelations about lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street held last December, at a time the rest of the country was banned from participating in social gatherings and thousands of Britons were prohibited from visiting elderly relatives or deprived of the opportunity to comfort family members dying in hospital wards from COVID-19.
Figures released Monday suggested one in six people with dementia spent last Christmas alone.
The emergence of a video of Allegra Stratton, then Johnson’s spokeswoman, practicing a mock press conference a year ago in which she and other prime ministerial aides are seen joking about how they would handle media questions, if they arose, about a Downing Street “Christmas party” has triggered public disgust.
Johnson has denied any knowledge about rule-breaking parties and has ordered his top civil servant to investigate whether they happened.
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