Analysis: We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson’s political career
Next week could mark the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson’s political career. It’s a remarkable turnaround for the man who four years ago won the biggest Tory majority since Margaret Thatcher dominated British politics in the 1980s.
Johnson will give televised evidence to a parliamentary committee investigating whether he deliberately misled parliament when he denied lockdown rules were broken at 10 Downing Street, then his official residence and venue working as Prime Minister, during the Covid pandemic.
Although no longer leader, Johnson still dominates the ruling Conservative Party – and is still a headache for current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
His resignation as prime minister followed a seemingly endless cycle of scandals that repeated polls show have left him deeply unpopular across the country. Despite this, there are still – although far fewer than a year ago – vocal Johnson supporters within the party who believe he is the victim of a witch hunt.
To varying degrees, these supporters would like to see Johnson back on the front line – or even potentially Downing Street – before the next election as they believe he has some sort of Midas touch, something the party could do with as he drags poorly. in the polls.
It’s unclear whether Johnson himself believes it or not, but the fact that his loyalists are so willing to do as he pleases means he can undermine Sunak at will and, if he wanted to, could stage raids. rebellions that cause real pain to the Prime Minister. And allies say the temptation to do so is great, as Sunak has cast himself as the anti-Johnson since taking office, tearing up key policy pieces in the process.
The danger for Johnson lies in the conclusion of the committee’s investigation, each time it arises.
The focus of his inquiry is whether or not Johnson knew he was misleading Parliament when he said all Covid-19 rules were being followed in Downing Street during nationwide lockdowns. He made these statements in December 2021.
Subsequently, police issued over 100 fines to people working in Downing Street, including Johnson himself. Many events where the rules were deemed by police to have been broken were also attended by Johnson. So it will be up to Johnson to explain why he believed no rules were broken – and why he made that claim to Parliament. In some cases, these events were parties, where people ushered suitcases of wine into the building while the rest of the country was locked in their homes, unable to see dying relatives. Even Johnson’s communications director at the time admitted they couldn’t explain how the rallies were within the rules.
Misleading Parliament is a violation of the ministerial code which governs the behavior of ministers.
The committee could recommend his suspension from Parliament. This is where things could start to go wrong for Johnson and the Conservative Party.
There are actually three possible outcomes to the investigation. He could decide that Johnson did nothing wrong, or did so little wrong that an apology would suffice. He could recommend that he be suspended from parliament for less than 10 sitting days, which would require parliamentary approval. Or he could recommend that he be suspended for more than 10 sitting days, which, if approved by Parliament, could trigger a recall election and see Johnson lose his seat entirely – despite losing high functions, he still represents a constituency in West London.
All three carry potential problems for Johnson and Sunak.
If the committee does not recommend suspending Johnson, he and his ultra-loyals can claim, as they have before, that the whole investigation is a hack orchestrated by people who wanted to bring him down. Although Johnson’s group of allies is small these days, they know how to make a lot of noise. And if the polls remain bad for Sunak, they might start thinking about challenging his leadership before the next election.
The least likely outcome, most insiders agree, is the long suspension leading to a by-election, if Johnson’s voters demand it.
A conservative majority would probably agree that the fallout would be too toxic and best avoided. This would raise questions about whether he should run as a Conservative and, if so, what support the party should give him. The level of internal turmoil all of this could cause is certainly not worth it, given that it’s unclear whether Johnson even wants to challenge the siege. That said, as painful as all of this is, Johnson’s humiliation at the hands of his own constituents could be enough to end his political career.
Finally, if the committee recommends a shorter suspension, Conservative MPs find themselves in the unenviable position of having to publicly state whether or not they agree. Although Johnson is no longer the political force he once was, he is still popular among conservative members. He is still, according to pollster YouGov, the most famous politician in the country with a huge public platform – probably not the kind of person you want to upset. It would also mean that he is still a Member of Parliament, and therefore able to stir up trouble from within the house, with his supporters. And again, if the polls for Sunak don’t improve, those loyalists might have ideas for a new leader as the election nears.
Neither option is good for those who want to see the back of Johnson, who, it should be remembered, is the majority of Tory MPs. However, it is the latter option which, despite its obvious risks, is generally considered the best option by MPs.
Tory MPs, on the whole, say they are fed up with the spectacle of Boris Johnson, although they are reluctant to say so in public. They believe his tenure as prime minister proved he was unfit for office. They believe he has done more than almost anyone to undermine the reputation of the party and they blame him for the collapse in support for the Conservatives. But they also recognize that he is weaker than he has ever been.
In recent weeks Sunak has achieved things in office that Johnson has not been able to. He struck a new Brexit deal that seemed impossible under Johnson. He concluded an agreement with France on the clandestine passages of migrants. It restored relative calm to financial markets.
Johnson has had a few digs at Sunak in recent weeks, but they were mostly seen as testy and did more to highlight his own failings. As a former government minister and Johnson ally said, “If he’s not careful, he might end up like Nigel Farage.” Make a lot of noise but look more and more desperate, tragic and a bit ridiculous.
Ask Tory MPs what they think will happen if he’s suspended and you’ll get answers like ‘he’ll probably throw a few tantrums and then walk away’. Others say “it’s just not really relevant anymore. We’ve all moved on” and “We’ve decided to end the abusive relationship.”
The most common response you’ll get from MPs — both those who sympathize with Johnson and those who despise him — is that he knows he’s over and that he’s more interested in making money now than anything else, so he’ll probably just fade away. Since leaving office, he has earned huge sums of money giving speeches and is likely to write books that will earn him more than he could as just prime minister. Even some of his biggest supporters seem resigned to this ending, while dismissing all of the survey’s findings as corrupt and biased.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, if this happens to be the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson’s story, is that it wasn’t a scandal that did it. Over time, more and more sleaze stuck to him and eventually became too much to bear. When he left, it turned out that few people missed his belligerent swordsmanship and pompous style. And if things stay that way, it could be that Britain’s most identifiable politician for a generation won’t come out with a bang, but simply fade into the background as everyone passes by. to something else.