has described his 211-148 margin of victory in Monday’s no-confidence vote as “decisive” and “conclusive,” but it is neither. In 1990
won by a similar margin (204-152), yet the opposition from within the Conservative ranks was enough to force her to stand down. In 2018 Theresa May won by a wider margin (200-117), only to resign six months later. History suggests that Monday’s vote leaves Mr. Johnson mortally wounded. Yet these are unusual times, and he is an exceptional politician.
The vote was not about Mr. Johnson’s policies, disarrayed and unpopular though they are. It was about his greatest strength and weakness—his outsize personality—and his government’s handling of an unprecedented challenge, the Covid-19 pandemic. Its economic hangover shows little sign of abating, and the mood in the U.K., as in other Western democracies, is bitter. The bureaucrats who devised the lockdowns and masking rituals are beyond the public’s wrath, but the elected leaders who took their advice are vulnerable. As President Biden may find in November, Mr. Johnson’s humbling is a foretaste of voters’ revenge.
The prime minister is affable and witty, a Falstaff with the common touch. No other Conservative could have won a landslide by breaking the “red wall” of Labour seats in Northern England, as Mr. Johnson did in December 2019. But he is also a man of appetites and evasions. “Our policy is having our cake and eating it,” he quipped in 2016, assuring the British public that Britain could leave the European Union but remain within its trade zone. This isn’t what happened, but Mr. Johnson nevertheless claimed that his Brexit deal was the “cakiest treaty” possible.
The prospect of striking a sweet spot in relations with Brussels soured with the onset of the pandemic in the third month of Mr. Johnson’s new government. The virus laid him low medically as well as politically, as he was hospitalized in intensive care. He emerged promising to lay off the booze and “the delicious late-night binges of cheese and chorizo” and insisted that his energy was unimpaired.
The prime minister followed the advice of government scientists and imposed three long lockdowns. The restrictions on personal movement and socializing were unprecedented. Mourners were banned from funerals, pubs were closed, and the elderly were trapped in their homes. The lockdowns were deeply unpopular, especially when Christmas gatherings were prohibited in 2020. Mr. Johnson justified the sacrifice by appealing to the Blitz spirit and a shared burden.
In November 2021, reports emerged of staff getting “totally plastered” in the offices of 10 Downing Street during the lockdowns. Mr. Johnson, who lives upstairs, admitted attending a November 2020 event for a departing colleague, but he insisted the rules had been followed and there were no parties. Further leaks described late-night drinks and takeout meals in the Department for Work and Pensions, more drinks to celebrate the Treasury’s budget review, and the dispatch of minions to a nearby supermarket with an empty suitcase, to smuggle even more booze into Downing Street.
Photographs appeared showing Mr. Johnson at a party in the garden of No. 10 with his wife and their infant son during the first lockdown. It emerged that Downing Street staff had partied the day before
funeral in April 2021, when the widowed queen had mourned alone; Mr. Johnson apologized personally to
It was alleged that in June 2020 Mr. Johnson had celebrated his birthday in his office with his wife, between 12 and 30 staffers and a cake emblazoned with the British flag.
The “Partygate” revelations were typical of British office life, but Mr. Johnson had banned the British from drinking at their desks and in their gardens. He had betrayed the public’s trust, and his legalistic denials seemed furtive and unconvincing. The exposure of lockdown violations of the beer-and-curry variety in the Labour Party, and the rebranding of Labour’s leader, Sir
as “Sir Beer Korma,” failed to shift the blame. As Orwell had written of political gluttony, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
A civil-service inquiry unearthed further gatherings. The Metropolitan Police investigated 12 events and issued 126 fixed penalty notices, the equivalent of parking fines, to 83 people for attending eight of the events. By the time Mr. Johnson was given his single fine, Conservative members of Parliament had begun filing letters calling for a vote of no confidence. Some were old enemies, Remainers who resented his Brexit victory, but others were new members from behind the red wall.
Pundits are saying this is the beginning of the end for the prime minister. As a biographer of
Mr. Johnson might prefer to think of it as the end of the beginning. He may be right. “The thing about the greased piglet is that he manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail,” former Prime Minister
a friend of Mr. Johnson at Eton and Oxford, has observed.
There are reasons to think Mr. Johnson’s luck will hold. There is no serious Conservative challenger for the poisoned chalice. Mr. Starmer has the charisma of two-day-old takeout. Labour may lead in the polls, but it isn’t unusual for the opposition to lead in the middle of a term. Mr. Johnson can’t print any more money, but he can still bring home the bacon by reversing his unpopular “net zero” environmental policies and tax hikes, cutting back on a bureaucracy that has crept up to pre-Thatcher levels, and cranking up the battered British economy. That’s what he was elected to do, and he has more than two years until the next general election. He may yet have more cake and eat it, too.
Mr. Green is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His latest book is “The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848-98.”
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