LONDON – One of his MPs described him as a “walking dead man”. The Scottish Conservative leader says he should resign. Some Cabinet members were notably slow to express their support for him after a humiliating day in Parliament.
And that was before Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to make another apology to Queen Elizabeth II.
Two years ago, Johnson led the Conservative Party to its biggest electoral victory in decades. Now, after apologizing for attending a Downing Street party during Britain’s first and fiercest coronavirus lockdown, and then two more meetings held by his aides under various restrictions as the Queen prepared to bury her husband, Johnson faces a major problem.
Here is a guide that shows how much trouble and what can happen next.
This means a lot more than just a few drinks in the park.
On Wednesday, Mr Johnson apologized for attending a meeting in May 2020 that appeared to violate the rules of the lockdown he imposed on England. The ceremony was held in the Garden of No. 10 Downing Street, where British Prime Ministers live and work, and employees were asked to “bring your own liquor”.
Mr Johnson said he believed it did work, but that did little to appease critics.
Then, on Thursday, Johnson’s spokesman announced that his office had “apologised to the palace” for two more parties held in Downing Street without the prime minister present in April 2021, the night before the Queen sat alone at a socially distanced funeral for her husband Prince Philip.
It was the latest in a string of reports about parties in Downing Street while the restrictions were in place, allegations that lowered poll ratings for Conservatives and led to the bitter resignation of an aide who was videotaped laughing at a Christmas “wine and cheese gathering.” A senior government official, Sue Gray, has been tasked with investigating reports of at least seven parties that may have violated the rules in 2020.
This week’s disclosures have deepened the crisis for several reasons.
On Wednesday, after insisting for weeks that all rules were followed, Mr Johnson admitted he was present at an event to which dozens of people were invited, at a time when restrictions have banned social contact with more than one person, even outside. , in almost all circumstances. Some lawmakers have responded to Mr Johnson’s apology in Parliament with testimony from people who have been prevented from visiting their dying relatives.
Thursday’s finds brought both the royal family and a restriction that lasted and felt well into 2021: restrictions on attendance at funerals. The Daily Telegraph, which reported the news of the April parties, accompanied its report with a picture of the Queen sitting alone at her husband’s wedding.
Mr Johnson’s lawmakers could simply force him out.
In Britain it is difficult to get rid of a serving prime minister, but it is far from impossible. The highest office in the country goes to the leader of the political party with a parliamentary majority. The party can oust its leader, choose another president, and change prime ministers without a general election.
Under current Conservative Party rules, MPs can hold a binding vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson if 54 of them write a formal request. Letters of request are confidential.
So far, only four Conservatives in Parliament have publicly called on Mr Johnson to resign. Only a senior lawmaker knows how many messages have been written, and will only announce the number if he has gone up to the challenge.
In a vote of no confidence, held by secret ballot, Mr Johnson will keep his job by winning a simple majority of Conservative lawmakers. He would then be immune to another such challenge for a year unless the rules were changed.
His government could undermine him fatally.
Cabinet rebellions destabilize prime ministers and could be critical in pushing them out. Margaret Thatcher’s death in 1990 was prompted by the resignation of Jeffrey Howe, a disgruntled former ally, and Theresa May lost several ministers – including Mr Johnson himself, who resigned as foreign secretary in 2018.
As Prime Minister, Johnson has maintained somewhat of ministerial discipline thus far. But one of the senior ministers, the former Brexit negotiator David Frost, resigned late last year, citing political differences. And it took several hours for Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to express lukewarm support for Mr Johnson after Wednesday’s apology. Of course it may just be a coincidence, but Mr. Sunak is the main contender to take over if Mr. Johnson goes down.
Or he could succumb to quiet pressure.
This was formerly known as a visit from “men in gray suits”, a phrase that dates back to an era when all the major power-brokers were they were men. In those days, when a group known as the “Magic Circle” chose the leader of the Conservative Party, such dignitaries could withdraw their support as well, asking the prime minister to resign. At present, things are not quite that way, but leaders can still be persuaded to leave on their own terms and maintain some measure of dignity, rather than risk expulsion.
Ms May resigned in 2019, having survived a leadership vote, when it was clear her position had become hopeless. Similar pressures, accompanied by ministerial resignations, were used to expel Tony Blair, Labor Prime Minister, from Downing Street in 2007.
Understand Boris Johnson’s recent problems
The fatal blow, if it occurs, could be months away.
The timing of the coup is never easy. Critics are unlikely to force a vote of confidence until they believe Mr Johnson has been damaged enough to lose. This point may be close, but crucially, there is no consensus on who will replace Mr. Johnson, and thus no single gang organizing the challenge.
Mr. Sunak is the front-runner, and Liz Truss, the secretary of state, is the main contender, but many others are likely to run. They all need to be careful. In the past, ambitious opponents have suffered from being seen as disloyal to the prime minister (but not Mr Johnson, who opposed and then succeeded Mrs May).
For most conservative lawmakers, the question is whether the change will help them. None of his potential successors has demonstrated an ability to match the appeal he made in the party leadership for a landslide victory in 2019.
Most conservative lawmakers seem to be waiting for Gray’s internal investigation before deciding which way to go. Despite her reputation for independence, she is in the rare and confusing position of being an unelected government employee who compiles a report that could prove definitive for her president-elect. So some analysts expect it to limit its findings to the facts it establishes without passing a direct judgment on Mr. Johnson’s behavior.
Mr Johnson is back to normal from before.
Escape from scratches is one of the prime’s defining skills. Former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron once described Mr Johnson as the “greased pig” of politics: his career has contained no less than dismissals and insults, followed by an even greater triumph.
To get out of this narrow corner, Mr Johnson needs to avoid government resignations and prevent the rush of letters calling for a vote of no-confidence. He hopes then that Mrs. Gray’s report will be diplomatic enough to survive, albeit after another apology and the purge of his staff. He could then please his party’s lawmakers by ending all coronavirus restrictions later this month.
But he may face more problems in the future.
Aside from the crisis over the Downing Street parties, things look tricky for the government. Energy bills are going up, inflation is going up, interest rates are going up just as Mr Johnson is about to raise taxes.
Mr. Johnson’s enemies circle around and Mr. Sunak and Mrs. Truss maneuver around. In May, the Conservatives will face a local election that will test Mr Johnson’s popularity. Opinion polls show a collapse in support for him personally and suggest he is now dragging his party down. Some recent polls have put the Conservatives 10 or more points behind the Labor opposition.
Mr Johnson became prime minister in 2019 because his party correctly saw that he would win a general election. If he concludes that he will lose them the next day, his days are numbered.