Is the Party Over for Boris?

A spate of high-profile resignations at Downing Street underscores the British prime minister’s perilous position.

By , the author of Stalin's Children.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sits during a media briefing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sits during a media briefing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sits during a media briefing in London on Feb. 15, 2021. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Ever since evidence began to emerge last month that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his staffers enjoyed at least 12 wine- and cake-fueled parties and discos during the strictest period of Britain’s COVID-19 lockdown last year, Johnson has been fighting for his political life. But a slew of high-profile resignations this week from his Downing Street team—including his policy director, spokesperson, and chief secretary—could turn a slow slide toward political oblivion into an avalanche.

The latest resignations “feel like a tipping point,” said one senior Conservative member of the House of Lords, who is “seriously thinking whether Boris is the right person to lead us into the next election. The question to answer is: Can he rebuild trust among the party and among voters, or is the brand too damaged?”

The so-called Partygate revelations have triggered a collapse in Johnson’s net personal approval ratings, currently at a 30-year low of negative 46 percent, as well as the Conservative Party’s approval ratings, which trail the opposition Labour Party by 10 points in recent polls.

Ever since evidence began to emerge last month that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his staffers enjoyed at least 12 wine- and cake-fueled parties and discos during the strictest period of Britain’s COVID-19 lockdown last year, Johnson has been fighting for his political life. But a slew of high-profile resignations this week from his Downing Street team—including his policy director, spokesperson, and chief secretary—could turn a slow slide toward political oblivion into an avalanche.

The latest resignations “feel like a tipping point,” said one senior Conservative member of the House of Lords, who is “seriously thinking whether Boris is the right person to lead us into the next election. The question to answer is: Can he rebuild trust among the party and among voters, or is the brand too damaged?”

The so-called Partygate revelations have triggered a collapse in Johnson’s net personal approval ratings, currently at a 30-year low of negative 46 percent, as well as the Conservative Party’s approval ratings, which trail the opposition Labour Party by 10 points in recent polls.

A steady stream of photographs and stories, many leaked by Johnson’s sacked right-hand man and former chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, have led to accusations of hypocrisy not just from Labour but from many members of Johnson’s own party. At the time of the Downing Street festivities, Britons were banned from mixing with other households, visiting elderly relatives, or attending the funerals of loved ones. In a stinging rebuke in the House of Commons, Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, said, “No. 10 Downing St. was not observing the regulations they had imposed on members of the public. Either [Johnson] had not read the rules, or didn’t understand what they meant, or others around him, or they didn’t think the rules applied to them. Which was it?”

Johnson’s first line of defense was to categorically deny that any lockdown rule-breaking had occurred. Then, as stories of more parties surfaced—including pictures of a special wine fridge being delivered to Downing Street—he insisted that “nobody told me” that a wine-and-cheese gathering in the Downing Street garden, which more than 100 staffers were invited to, might breach the rules. Johnson then commissioned Sue Gray, a top civil servant, to produce a detailed report on the alleged parties, which the prime minister insists on calling “work events.”

“A number of these gatherings should not have been allowed to take place,” Gray concluded, suggesting that “failures of leadership and judgment” were to blame. But the Gray report was overshadowed by the Metropolitan Police Service’s parallel investigation into potential breaches of then-current lockdown laws that could result in criminal fines imposed on the lawbreakers, which could include Johnson himself. A full version of Gray’s findings won’t be released until the police investigation is complete.

A recent Opinium poll showed that just 13 percent of voters think Johnson is telling the truth about Partygate; 64 percent do not. That collapse in public trust has caused a handful of Conservative members of Parliament to formally call for a vote on a new leader. To do so, lawmakers need 54 no-confidence letters; so far, 12 have gone public about their withdrawal of support, though several more have reportedly submitted letters privately. Andrew Mitchell, a member of Parliament and former cabinet minister, compared the scandal to “battery acid” that was “corroding the fabric of the Conservative Party.”

So far, Johnson has remained bullish, insisting he would lead the party at the next election. He has also counterattacked, aggressively slapping down criticism from Labour leader Keir Starmer by accusing him of failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, a notorious pedophile and television personality, while Starmer was in charge of Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service under the previous Labour government. It was a low blow that smelled, to many of his supporters and staffers, of desperation. Munira Mirza, head of Downing Street’s policy unit and a close colleague of Johnson’s for 14 years, resigned over Johnson’s “misleading” attack on Starmer.

Johnson’s supporters have attempted to spin the five top-level resignations as a “house-cleaning,” even dubbing it his “night of the long knives.” Indeed, one of those who departed was Johnson’s private secretary, Martin Reynolds, who issued the fateful garden party invitation. But “Mirza was one of the highest fliers” at Downing Street, said a senior Johnson aide who worked closely with Mirza. “The feeling is that she is lining up for a top job with the next leader,” a maneuver that requires “putting a bit of distance between her and Boris.”

More worrying to the Conservatives as a whole, though, is the prospect that Johnson has gone from a vote-winner with a Midas touch to a serious electoral liability. Johnson won a historic 80-seat majority in 2019 on the promise of “getting Brexit done,” stealing dozens of traditionally Labour working-class constituencies that had never previously voted Conservative. A recent poll for Channel 4 News showed that Johnson’s reputation had crashed particularly badly in those so-called red wall seats—and on current polling, all but three would be lost, and Labour would win an overall majority.

Worse, Johnson’s administration has failed to address two major issues that breached the red wall in the first place: immigration and cost of living.

Fears over uncontrolled immigration were a major concern for many voters who backed Britain’s departure from the European Union. Yet immigrants have been crossing the English Channel in record numbers, with the government apparently powerless to stop the regular flotillas of flimsy inflatables.

Worse still, a perfect storm of rising global energy prices, rapidly growing inflation, and higher taxation to cover the government’s splurge in COVID-19-related spending have triggered the worst blow to voters’ wallets in a generation. The Bank of England’s governor, Andrew Bailey, announced that annual inflation is forecast to hit 7.4 percent this year. At the same time, the removal of a government-imposed price cap on energy bills will send the cost of heating and lighting spiraling by up to 50 percent. The government has tried to soften the blow with a program of short-term rebates. But Johnson’s aggressive embrace of net-zero carbon targets has exacerbated the problem, imposing green surcharges on energy bills and forcing the United Kingdom to ditch domestic coal in favor of imported natural gas that has quadrupled in price since last year.

According to Bailey, Britain is facing “the worst, the biggest fall in living standards since records began” in 1990. He compounded the gloom by raising interest rates to 0.5 percent to temper inflation with the prospect of more rises to come, hitting mortgage-payers hard. “For ordinary families, this feels less a cost of living crisis, and more a brutal mugging,” wrote the usually strongly pro-Johnson Daily Mail in an editorial this week. Even the usually loyal Spectator magazine, which Johnson used to edit, slammed Partygate as “a grotesque betrayal,” and in the words of columnist Rod Liddle, “that squandered trust is not recoverable.”

“It is definitely a case of when Boris goes, not if,” wrote Isabel Hardman, the magazine’s deputy political editor. Johnson’s political malaise has “felt fatal for about a week now [but] things are speeding up.”

While the Conservative Party, press, and even his own staffers have turned against him, Johnson has continued to behave as if the crisis will blow over. This week, he paid a visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, to speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and tried to turn the national conversation toward his opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

“We need to be more clear about the benefits of Brexit, about our world-beating vaccine rollout, how Boris is playing a leading role in the defense of Ukraine,” said the senior Johnson aide. “I think people outside the Westminster bubble will look back on [Partygate] and see it as a rather trivial distraction from the real problems that [we] are facing.”

Perhaps. But lost trust is hard to regain, especially for a man like Johnson, who came to office trailing a career-long record of being creative with the truth, both in his journalism (he was fired for making up a quote) and in his personal life (he still refuses to say how many children he has in and out of wedlock).

Addressing his assembled remaining staff in the Cabinet Room of No. 10 Downing St. in the wake of this week’s resignations, Johnson quoted the Lion King in a message intended to boost morale. “As Rafiki in the Lion King says, ‘Change is good,” Johnson told top aides. “Change is necessary even though its tough.” Meanwhile, many of his colleagues in the Conservative Party are wondering if it might be time to turn the circle of Johnson’s political life and have another take his place.

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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