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Is Boris Johnson Safe at Last?

The demise of his rivals and the war in Ukraine have given the British leader a lifeline.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the command room at the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the command room at the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) visits the command room at the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Dover, England, on April 14. DAN KITWOOD/POOL/AFP

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at what’s behind British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s longevity, the latest from Ukraine, and more news worth following from around the world.

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Johnson Parties On

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at what’s behind British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s longevity, the latest from Ukraine, and more news worth following from around the world.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Johnson Parties On

There was a popular tweet that did the rounds after any Trump-era scandal broke, mocking the breathless media coverage and desire from his detractors for a comeuppance that would never arrive.

Now a meme, the same sentiment can be applied to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who—after beginning the year on the political ropes following a string of allegations relating to a party colleague’s corruption and his own breaking of lockdown rules, summed up as Partygate—has not waited until Easter weekend to begin his resurrection from what seemed like certain political demise.

So seemingly indestructible has he become that he’s even visited an active war zone, meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in person in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, last weekend. That support has been backed up by concrete actions, with the United Kingdom committing more than $1 billion in military and humanitarian aid since the war began.

His pivot to wartime leader echoes a similar rebrand by his conservative predecessor Margaret Thatcher, who used the 1982 Falkland War against Argentina to boost her sinking approval ratings at home. Still, as the war in Ukraine drags on, Partygate has returned to the headlines, as Johnson and other political figures have been forced by police to pay fines for breaking lockdown rules.

Johnson’s staying power can’t be explained by a rally-around-the-flag effect, John Curtice, a polling expert and professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde told Foreign Policy, with any gains evaporating with the return of Partygate and the announcement of a miserly national budget. “It was worth a point,” Curtice said, referring to his percentage bump in the polls. “But that point’s already been lost.”

It also isn’t due to any dramatic change in public opinion. The opposition Labour Party has led the Conservatives in opinion polling since December 2021, and it has at least a six percentage point lead over the Tories, according to the most recent survey.

Johnson’s longevity is better explained by the mood in his own party. “The Conservative Party has clearly made the decision that now is not the right time to get rid of Boris Johnson,” said Chris Curtis, the head of political polling at research firm Opinium. “Theres a couple of reasons for that, but probably the most important one is that theres no one obvious to replace him.”

Rishi Sunak, current chancellor of the Exchequer, had been tipped as the heir-apparent at the beginning of the year. His bright prospects have now dimmed as he gets embroiled in his own scandal: His wife, tech heiress Akshata Murthy, has been outed as a tax exile, using her Indian citizenship to avoid paying British taxes on her overseas income by claiming non-domiciled status. His image was also bludgeoned by the aforementioned budget, and Sunak’s net approval rating now stands at minus 20 points, one point lower than Johnsons.

Taking a longer view, Johnson may still have some wriggling to do. Local elections in May point to a Conservative defeat, at which point the knives may come back out in a struggle that could become uncomfortable for the ruling party. “I mean the one thing we do know: He will not resign,” Curtice said.

As well as facing up to his own unpopularity, there is the global problem of rising prices, especially on energy, where an increase in price caps has led to millions of people in Britain seeing a 54 percent price bump. Such a global crisis will test Johnson’s ability to bounce back again. “The biggest issue in the U.K. is the cost of living crisis. And the main debate thats happening over that is why is the government not doing more. So again, it isnt clear how the prime minister can come back from this one,” Opinium’s Curtis said.

While British citizens see their purchasing power diminish by the day, Johnson’s government has taken aim at migrants, specifically those trying to cross into the country illegally. On Wednesday, Johnson announced a plan that would send those migrants more than 6,000 miles south to Rwanda, where their asylum claims would then be heard. The decision echoes others in the United States and Australia that intend to prevent would-be refugees from reaching either country’s territory.

For Curtis, it’s another attempt by Johnson to appeal to a right-wing base while also casting himself as an unorthodox but pragmatic politician. “I think what Boris Johnson is trying to do here is again show: Yeah, you know what, I dont play by the rules. I did have parties during lockdown. I know Im not the kind of person you can trust or think is ethical. But again, Im the kind of person who gets things done.

“Im cynical about whether that will work,” Curtis added. “But I think that’s strategically what hes trying to do.”


What We’re Following Today

Floods in South Africa. Devastating flooding has killed at least 341 people in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, with more than 40,000 others affected, local authorities said on Thursday as they continue to assess the damage. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for improved disaster management capabilities in the wake of the floods, adding that its cause was “obviously part of climate change.”

Russia reacts to NATO moves. Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, has warned of ending the “nuclear-free” status of the Baltic region if Sweden and Finland were to join NATO, saying such an expansion would cause Russia to reinforce its Western flank in response. “No sane person wants higher prices and higher taxes; increased tensions along borders; Iskanders, hypersonics, and ships with nuclear weapons literally at arm’s length from their own home,” said Medvedev, who also served as Russian president from 2008 to 2012. “Let’s hope that the common sense of our northern neighbors will win.”

In Ukraine. The flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, is now on the seabed after Russian authorities announced it had sunk in “stormy seas” while being towed to a port following an explosion on board.

Ukraine’s military claimed to have inflicted the damage with cruise missiles. It is the first time a Russian cruiser has sunk since Germany attacked the Chervona Ukraina in 1941. Russia claimed to have evacuated the roughly 500 crew members aboard the Moskva before it sank. It’s not clear whether a piece of the True Cross, a Christian relic placed on board the ship’s chapel, also made it off the boat.


Odds and Ends

A Turkish restaurant owner made an unsuccessful bid to send a plate of Adana kebabs into space, after the balloon carrying the dish exploded on its journey through the stratosphere.

The restaurateur, Yasar Aydin, had concocted the plan to promote his business as well as his city’s proprietary kebab flavor. His hopes were dashed when the helium balloon with kebab attached exploded roughly 20 miles above the Earth, but he was able to retrieve the dish for display in his restaurant by placing a tracking device on it beforehand.

As well as promoting his hometown and restaurant, Aydin said he was motivated by a sense of history: “I love firsts. I decided to send a kebab plate to space because I wanted it to be the first.”

Colm Quinn was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2020 and 2022. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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