From ‘Partygate’ to a Possible Leadership Challenge for Boris Johnson

The British prime minister’s shining political star seems to be dimming—and with it, perhaps, Conservative prospects.

By , the author of Stalin's Children.
Boris Johnson poses next to Clifford's Tower in York, England, on May 23, 2016.
Boris Johnson poses next to Clifford's Tower in York, England, on May 23, 2016.
Boris Johnson poses next to Clifford's Tower in York, England, on May 23, 2016. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

For much of his political career, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been known as an electoral wizard. His uncanny talent for appealing to people who wouldn’t normally vote Conservative made him mayor of London, a left-wing heartland, in 2008, and later propelled him to a landslide victory and the prime minister’s job in the general election of 2019 with a Tory surge in traditional Labour constituencies.

Yet Johnson’s shambling, rumpled, Old Etonian schtick seems to be wearing thin. The latest polls show his approval rating running 13 percentage points behind Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party. Despite commanding a majority in the House of Commons larger than any prime minister’s since Margaret Thatcher, Johnson this week may have to rely on Labour votes to pass new COVID-19 lockdown legislation. And an upcoming local election may see a commanding Tory advantage all but evaporate.

The cause of Johnson’s fall from grace has been a series of unforced errors that have highlighted three of his biggest apparent weaknesses: dishonesty, cronyism, and a dilettante attitude to the affairs of state. 

For much of his political career, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been known as an electoral wizard. His uncanny talent for appealing to people who wouldn’t normally vote Conservative made him mayor of London, a left-wing heartland, in 2008, and later propelled him to a landslide victory and the prime minister’s job in the general election of 2019 with a Tory surge in traditional Labour constituencies.

Yet Johnson’s shambling, rumpled, Old Etonian schtick seems to be wearing thin. The latest polls show his approval rating running 13 percentage points behind Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party. Despite commanding a majority in the House of Commons larger than any prime minister’s since Margaret Thatcher, Johnson this week may have to rely on Labour votes to pass new COVID-19 lockdown legislation. And an upcoming local election may see a commanding Tory advantage all but evaporate.

The cause of Johnson’s fall from grace has been a series of unforced errors that have highlighted three of his biggest apparent weaknesses: dishonesty, cronyism, and a dilettante attitude to the affairs of state. 

“Many in the parliamentary [Conservative] Party are moaning about Boris losing his magic,” said a senior Downing Street aide who sees Johnson on a daily basis, and who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the record. “There’s no chance of an imminent defenestration … but the talk is about a successor to take us into the next election.” Under current fixed-term parliamentary laws, that will come in 2024. Johnson “isn’t on the ropes,” the aide said. “But he’s got work to do to get the party back onside.”

The first of Johnson’s scandals was an attempt to shield veteran Conservative Member of Parliament Owen Paterson from punishment by a Commons corruption watchdog over his work for lobbyists last month. Johnson disastrously mobilized his party to vote through a rule change blatantly intended to protect his man. But the ensuing furor in Parliament and the media was so intense that Paterson resigned instead, leaving Johnson to answer charges of condoning corruption in his own party.

Another blow came when the independent Electoral Commission fined the Conservative Party 17,800 pounds (more than $23,000) for inaccurately reporting the funding of a redecoration of Johnson’s official Downing Street flat, which had in fact been paid for by Tory donors. 

Perhaps the biggest disaster was leaked video footage from December 2020 of then-Downing Street press spokeswoman Allegra Stratton laughing and joking about breaking of COVID-19 rules at a No. 10 Christmas party. “This fictional party was a business meeting,” Stratton said on camera during a practice press conference before breaking down in giggles. “It was not socially distanced.” 

At the time Britain was in a strict COVID-19 lockdown, with Christmas gatherings banned and only those designated as essential workers allowed to go to the office. Before the video was leaked, Johnson had strenuously denied that there was any breach of lockdown rules over Christmas. Stratton resigned immediately after the footage emerged, but senior ministers were so embarrassed that they canceled scheduled media appearances in order to avoid answering awkward questions. 

More accusations of rule-breaking followed. Johnson was pictured hosting a Christmas quiz for Downing Street staffers over Zoom—but Labour critics carped that the quiz participants had broken coronavirus rules to gather in groups to participate. More substantially, the cascade of scandals was followed by a chaotic rollout of COVID-19 vaccine boosters that saw Britain’s National Health Service website crash and five-hour lines form outside vaccination centers. Johnson promised a million booster shots a day—only for the health system to announce it was temporarily out of vaccines. 

Taken separately, “lobbygate,” “wallpapergate,” and “partygate” would be mere bumps in the road for a government with a 72-seat majority in the House of Commons. But the cumulative effect of these missteps has damaged Johnson’s standing with his party base and senior loyalists alike, perhaps fatally.

“I’ve always voted Conservative. I only became a [party] member when Boris came to the forefront, I really liked Boris,” one caller named Melanie told BBC Five Live last week after seeing Johnson struggling to deny allegations of lockdown-flouting. She resigned her membership after partygate, Melanie told the BBC, because “I just cannot believe what he says anymore.”

That loss of faith among ordinary voters is deeply troubling for many conservative lawmakers, not least because Johnson owed his 2019 landslide in large part to a major swing away from Labour in working-class constituencies once dubbed the “red wall” of Labour support. 

“I’m getting a lot of calls and emails from constituents who are very angry,” about the apparent double standards in Downing Street, said one senior Conservative MP who was elected in 2010, and who requested anonymity because he remains close to Johnson. “So are a lot of my colleagues. If you’re a Red Wall MP, the feeling is that you’re pretty much there for a trial period. These are places which haven’t been Conservative for generations, or maybe ever. So it’s understandable that they are nervous. We have to do better to convince these voters that we are worthy of their support … that [the Conservative Party] is the real party of working people.”

Many top Tories are making no secret of their wavering faith in Johnson, including Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the treasurer of the powerful 1922 Committee of conservative MPs that governs leadership challenges. Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, which has hitherto been strongly supportive of Johnson, last week posted a prediction that a vote of no confidence in the prime minister had “suddenly become more likely than not.” Even the staunchly pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper led an issue last week with the banner headline “Is this the beginning of the end for Boris?” 

A significant number of Johnson’s members of parliament—estimates vary from 50 to 80—plan to rebel against their leader in a Commons vote this Tuesday on the introduction of new COVID-19 restrictions to tackle what the government considers a growing threat from the new omicron variant. And there is deep nervousness in the party that the by-election to be held after Paterson’s resignation could see an impressive 23,000-strong majority in the constituency of North Shropshire severely cut or even reversed.

“A loss in North Shropshire would definitely start the clock ticking on Boris,” the Downing Street aide said. “But that’s not going to happen.”

Nevertheless, two front-runners to succeed Johnson have already emerged: Chancellor of the Exchequer (as Britain’s finance minister is known) Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Though Sunak and Truss remain publicly loyal to their boss, both have also been reaching out to their fellow lawmakers. Truss has been entertaining female red wall members of parliament with “Fizz with Liz” nights at a private members’ club in Mayfair, and a WhatsApp group called “Liz for Leader” was briefly set up by Tory parliamentarians before being exposed by the press. Last month, she posed for a photo on a British tank in Estonia, an apparently deliberate echo of an iconic 1986 image of Thatcher on a British tank in West Germany. 

Sunak, for his part, has used his position as controller of the nation’s finances to stake out a political brand of his own designed to appeal to red wallers. Sunak has signaled that he favors a significant cut in income tax cut before the next election, combined with a boost in government spending on deprived areas—which, not coincidentally, include many former Labour seats that any new Conservative leader must hold to remain in power. 

The trouble is that neither Sunak, Truss, nor any other member of Johnson’s team has anything like the charisma or personality of their high-profile boss. “Most people aren’t interested in politics. if they know one politician, it’s Boris,” the Downing Street insider said. 

But recent polls showing Johnson trailing his Labour challenger by 13 points tell a different story. Starmer has finally seen his message that powerful politicians feel the rules don’t apply to them hit home. Even the birth of Johnson’s second child with his third wife Carrie Simmons last week failed to boost his poll numbers or raise the general gloom in his party.

An undisclosed number of rebel Tory deputies have already reportedly submitted letters calling for a leadership contest to the 1922 Committee. But according to party rules, 56 such letters are needed to start the process of ousting Johnson, and the rebels are “a long way short,” according to the Daily Mail. Moreover, many of Johnson’s biggest critics include passionate opponents of Britain’s exit from the European Union and old rivals he previously trampled—such as former Prime Minister Theresa May. 

Many hope that removing Johnson “will allow the Remainer establishment to set to work on ripping the guts out of Brexit,” Patrick O’Flynn, a former member of the European Parliament and a Conservative insider, wrote in the Spectator. He noted that one prominent Johnson opponent, Andrew Adonis, tweeted that “a change of Prime Minister needs to precipitate a fundamental change of policy on Europe to get us back into the customs union and single market. It has got to correct the fundamental error of the Johnson premiership, not continue it.”

Given that “Get Brexit Done” was the slogan that swung the red wall and won Johnson his landslide, many conservatives are wary of the vocal anti-Brexit minority who see ousting Johnson as the first step to reversing, or at least watering down, Brexit. 

For the time being, the Johnson magic, though tarnished, remains the Conservatives’ least bad option. But now that Brexit is done, it’s up to Johnson to find a new way to keep red wall voters’ loyalty—and prove that his own failings haven’t killed voters’ and lawmakers’ faith in his political wizardry.

Owen Matthews is the author of Stalin's Children and is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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