Britain’s rebellious Prime Minister Boris Johnson has seldom come across a rule he hasn’t wanted to break — and in many ways his political ascendancy has been because of his flouting of ordinances with voters thrilling to his audacity and readiness to defy conventions and norms.
His rule-breaking, though, is turning into a liability rather than an electoral asset — even among populist-minded voters who liked the idea of a break with the past and wanted him to shake up British politics.
Britain’s Conservative lawmakers returned to London Monday from their constituencies with rebukes still stinging their ears from voters furious with seemingly endless revelations about numerous impromptu and bibulous Downing Street parties held last year as the coronavirus pandemic death toll mounted. The parties were in breach of a strict nationwide lockdown, when social gatherings were banned and thousands were prohibited from visiting family members dying in hospital wards from COVID-19.
The newspaper front pages have been withering in their criticism about what they have dubbed as “Partygate” and so has been the public reaction as more revelations emerge of a culture of partying at Downing Street with aides resupplying with wine and beer purchased from a supermarket near the House of Commons and transported back in a suitcase. Calls for Johnson to resign have mounted — including from some Conservative lawmakers. Cabinet rivals have been jockeying behind the scenes to position themselves to replace him.
Last week, Johnson offered a half-apology in parliament for the breaches of lockdown rules, but said he thought a “bring your own booze” garden party he attended was a genuine work meeting. Later in the parliamentary tea rooms, he suggested to Conservative lawmakers the scandal was a storm in a teacup.
Government aides had hoped the storm would blow over and tasked a senior civil servant to investigate.
On Friday, the scandal worsened when it emerged one party took place at Downing Street the night before the funeral of Prince Philip. Tabloid newspapers — and opposition lawmakers — were quick to note the contrast with the behavior of the rule-observant monarch, Queen Elizabeth.
She mourned the passing of her husband of more than 70 years at St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, sitting alone in the pews, distanced from her grieving relatives.
The government apologized to the queen.
A survey conducted by the Grassroots Conservatives group reported Sunday that 40 % of its supporters want Johnson to resign.
Conservative MPs said they confronted enormous anger from their local associations when visiting their districts Saturday and Sunday. Lawmaker Robert Syms told reporters, “I've had emails from what I would call Christian, decent, honest, honorable types of Tory voters, who say they feel embarrassed about voting Conservative with Boris Johnson.”
Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party chairman, toured TV studios Sunday, saying Johnson is “both very contrite and deeply apologetic for what happened” and plans to overhaul the “culture” at No. 10. “He is determined to make sure that this can't be allowed to happen and that we address the underlying culture in Downing Street,” he said.
In his attempt to salvage his premiership, Johnson is reportedly planning to dismiss much of his inner circle of aides and advisers, in what The Times of London newspaper described Monday as a bid to “save his own skin.” He is also planning to announce a series of populist measures, including ending pandemic curbs.
Nadhim Zahawi, the education minister, claimed the prime minister is safe in his job; however, around 20 to 35 Conservative lawmakers are said to have submitted formal letters to party authorities requesting a leadership vote. Fifty-four letters would trigger such a vote. Dowden said it would be wrong for Johnson to step down as prime minister, and that a leadership contest was not what the public wanted.
With Johnson’s poll numbers plummeting, the country’s top pollster, John Curtice, a professor at the University of Strathclyde, said Monday he doubts the prime minister can recover from “Partygate.” Conservative lawmakers “have to ask themselves whether or not the prime minister is likely to recover from a situation where around a half of the people who voted for him thinks he should go,” he said.
While it might seem odd that a series of parties would topple a British prime minister, pollsters say, the scandal might be the breaking point for voters. They say voters have become enraged by the toxic mix of government chaos, abrupt policy reversals and corruption allegations. The cavalier partying has cut through to them, they say.
Johnson’s showmanship, once widely seen as an attribute, has also been misfiring as the public mood sours. In November, a rambling speech at a conference of the country’s top business leaders led to widespread criticism. In the speech, Johnson lost his notes, had to apologize for losing his way and extensively praised an amusement park, known as Peppa Pig World, while comparing himself to Moses and imitating the noise of an accelerating sports car.
Just before Christmas, David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit minister and close ally, quit the Cabinet, citing pandemic restrictions and the government's “direction of travel.” Frost, who had been handling Britain’s post-Brexit negotiations with the European Union, voiced dissatisfaction, saying he was worried Britain wasn’t taking advantage of its exit from the EU to chart a new course of limited government, lower taxes and reduced regulation.
Johnson recently suffered one of the most significant parliamentary rebellions in modern British history, when more than 100 of his Conservative lawmakers voted against the reimposition of tough pandemic restrictions. The embattled prime minister was further rocked by a humiliating parliamentary by-election defeat in a seat in the English Midlands that had been held continuously by the Conservatives since 1832.