LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to lift himself off the mat on Tuesday after a biting reprimand by his Conservative party. But with a new electoral challenge looming and the UK economy in a tailspin, there are few easy ways for Mr Johnson to reverse his fading fortune.
Johnson’s victory in a no-confidence vote on Monday night left him badly damaged, with many openings for potential coup plotters. A pair of parliamentary elections on June 23 could trigger another move against him if, as expected, the Conservatives lose at least one of the seats.
Even as Mr Johnson clings to power, he will face a major blow, with food and fuel prices rising and predictions that Britain could slide into recession. With more than 40 percent of his lawmakers turning against him, pushing controversial legislation through parliament won’t be easy.
Ever the lucky warrior, the merry Johnson told cabinet ministers on Tuesday that it was time to put aside the internal divisions about him and “continue talking about the issues I think the people of this country want to talk about.” .”
It was a typical brash response from a politician whose entire career has been a thumbs up from the oddsmakers. And he was in a relatively safe space, talking to a cabinet that was unlikely to rebel against him. But the mutiny in Mr Johnson’s party less than three years after leading it to a landslide electoral victory suggested he was not completely immune to the laws of political gravity.
A parade of scandals, most notably the closing festivities in Downing Street during the pandemic, has left many conservatives exhausted, disenchanted and afraid of pinning their future to an increasingly unpopular figure.
Unlike former President Donald J. Trump, to whom he is often compared, Mr. Johnson no longer has a mystical hold over his party. Many Tories openly label their leader as an obligation. Some have questioned the populist tactics that made him successful in previous elections.
They worry, for example, that the Conservatives no longer have a message that appeals to both their traditional voters in England’s affluent south and the working class, former Labor Party voters in the industrial north – popularly known as the ‘red wall’ – who famously converted Mr Johnson to Tory ranks in the 2019 general election with his pledge to “get Brexit done”.
“There is a major schism between the party of voters in the ‘red wall’, who want a large state, and the party of wealthy households in the south, who want a smaller state,” said Tony Travers, a professor in the South. politics. at the London School of Economics. “There is no policy that can square this circle.”
So far, Mr Johnson’s government has passed a mix of higher taxes and state aid for families suffering pressures on the cost of living, through a windfall on energy companies, an idea stolen from the opposition Labor party. This policy has alarmed the low-tax Tories, but has not yet improved the party’s polls, which are lagging behind Labour’s.
The magnitude of the electoral task Mr Johnson faces should become clearer in two weeks as voters in two districts head to the polls to replace Conservative lawmakers who have resigned from parliament in disgrace.
In Wakefield, a ‘red wall’ district in the north of England that the Conservatives won in 2019, the omens are bad. The party’s former lawmaker Imran Ahmad Khan resigned after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager. A Labor victory would be a sign both that it is beginning to reclaim its core countries under its leader, Keir Starmer, and that Mr Johnson’s appeal has waned.
On the same day, the Conservatives will defend a normally rock-solid seat in one of their traditional strongholds, Tiverton and Honiton, in the south west of England, where lawmaker Neil Parish stopped after admitting to watching pornography on his mobile. while in parliament.
Here the smaller, centrist Liberal Democratic Party is the main challenger. If it performs well, it will send shockwaves through Conservative ranks, signaling to many of its lawmakers in the South that even in areas once deemed safe, seats could be lost when the next general election comes.
Johnson is also facing acute problems in Scotland, where he has never been popular and has now been ousted by four of the six Scottish Conservative members of Westminster’s parliament – including their leader, Douglas Ross – who opposed the prime minister on Monday. voted.
One of the arguments supporting Mr Johnson is that no competing Conservative leader can appeal to such a cross-section of voters. But how the Tories would campaign for the re-election of a prime minister they have declared unfit is an open question. And further evidence that he has become a loser of votes would be damaging.
Of Monday’s autopsy, perhaps the most ruthless came from William Hague, a former Conservative leader who has been relatively coy in his criticism of Mr Johnson. He bluntly told the prime minister to step down.
“Votes have been cast showing a greater degree of rejection than any Tory leader has ever endured and survived,” wrote Mr Hague in The Times of London. “Deep down, he should recognize that, and focus on going out in a way that spares party and country such pains and uncertainties.”
Nothing in Mr. Johnson’s manner suggests that he intends to do that. Later this week, he is expected to make a series of policy announcements aimed at turning the page on the recent upheaval and attempting to re-establish his government. There is inevitably talk of a new cabinet reshuffle.
Understand Britain’s ‘Partygate’ Scandal
Unrest in Downing Street. A steady stream of revelations about parties violating lockdown rules has entangled Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a scandal that has threatened his grip on power. Here’s what you need to know:
The government is also likely to roll out legislation to overhaul the post-Brexit trade rules governing Northern Ireland, in hopes of easing border controls on goods shipped north from mainland Britain.
That would please the hard-core Brexiteers in the party, some of whom voted against Johnson on Monday. But other Tories argue it would be a violation of international law. And it would antagonize the European Union at a time when Britain cannot afford further turmoil.
Johnson faces further turmoil: A parliamentary committee is investigating whether he misled lawmakers over the Downing Street party scandal, while the government’s handling of the pandemic will be the subject of a public inquiry.
Given the chance that Mr Johnson’s political position will deteriorate further in the coming months, some rebels in his Conservative Party may wonder whether they acted prematurely by forcing a vote now rather than waiting.
According to analysts, this reflects the fledgling nature of this uprising. It was less of a carefully orchestrated coup attempt than an organic movement of fed up Tory lawmakers. That same lack of coordination could hinder future efforts to oust Mr Johnson, whose position, some say, is more solid than it appears.
A cabinet uprising of the type that Margaret Thatcher ousted in 1990 after surviving a leadership challenge seems unlikely, as his team is full of pro-Brexit loyalists. Only Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Treasury, could be tempted to leave if Mr Johnson demotes him on a reshuffle.
“Many of these people would never get a job in a government successor,” Mr Travers said, “so they will cling to Boris Johnson like a lifeboat.”
The easiest way to remove Mr Johnson would be for the 1922 Committee, which represents conservative grassroots, to change a rule that prevents another vote of no confidence for 12 months. But if leading party figures were to attempt this, Mr Johnson could threaten a quick general election, preferring his chances of winning a contest among voters over those of his doubting lawmakers.
Some analysts said there was a path for Mr Johnson, albeit a narrow one, that would lead to cutting taxes, overhauling the public sector and helping “red wall” voters cope with the cost of living crisis. In such a scenario, the party would have to tolerate the loss of some of its traditional seats in the south.
It would also require Mr Johnson to once again use his tendency to confuse the skeptics, not by jumping opportunistically from one issue to another, but by laying his head down and fighting on. The goal would be to survive the fallout from the impending district elections and attend his party conference in the fall, and beyond.
“If Johnson makes it to the end of the year, he could make it to the general election,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent. “It’s not going to be easy at all, but you’ll either see a really ugly forced exit, or we’ve all underestimated him – again – and he continues.”