Boris Johnson’s Houdini act is coming to an end

During a recent trip to London, I did my usual deep dive, meeting as many British political players as I could over the course of a fascinating (if frenetic) three days. As ever, my political marathon did its job, giving me a thorough, if impressionistic, view of what is going on in Westminster.

I spoke to 20 or so high-level political people and invariably asked them the same question: “Can Boris Johnson really somehow keep up the Harry Houdini act and survive ‘partygate?’” To my intense surprise, improving poll numbers to the contrary, all of them said the same thing: “No, not into the medium term. Boris is about done.”

There is no denying that escapology — the hallmark of Houdini’s illustrious vaudeville career — is also the defining characteristic of the present British prime minister. Long known for his humor, sense of fun and cheerful conviction that the rules of the world are not for him, Johnson took first the Conservative Party, and then the country, by storm, winning the largest Tory majority (80 seats) since the Thatcher era.

But these very qualities that made Johnson such a delightful and highly effective campaigner have come back to haunt him, given the horror of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Partygate,” at its essence, is a very simple thing. On numerous occasions, the prime minister and his staff engaged in parties in defiance of the draconian pandemic rules they themselves had drawn up and that the largely dutiful British public was keeping to. The nuance of the story (how many parties there were and how many the prime minister attended) matters far less than the overall picture. Yet again, Johnson thought that ridiculous rules needed to be followed by the little people but were not for him.

The immediate aftermath was dreadful for Johnson, with his premiership hanging by a thread. But then, like the great escapologist and showman who he so resembles, at the very last minute fortune seemed to come to the prime minister’s aid. The Russian invasion of Ukraine crashed down upon the world’s consciousness and changed the subject for Johnson.

The prime minister was propelled onto the international stage, where the mention of something as seemingly trivial as lockdown parties seemed poor form for the press to even bring up, given the life and death stakes unfolding. Changing leaders in wartime is something most publics tend to avoid, if at all possible, though there are plenty of historical exceptions (Winston Churchill in the Second World War and David Lloyd George in the First World War). Seemingly, Johnson was given a second wind, with the subject being changed and him being able to look prime ministerial. So, has the old rogue managed to slip by again? As Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader, wailed at Prime Minister’s Questions this week: “Why is he (Johnson) still here?”

Polling numbers would seem to suggest that Johnson has yet again gotten away with it. A March 11 Opinium poll found the prime minister’s heretofore crashing numbers stabilizing, if from a very low base. A bare majority of those polled (53 percent) still want Johnson to resign, but this is down 10 points from January. Labour’s lead over the Tories has shrunk to just two percentage points, well within the margin of error. It would seem the prime minister, gifted with a pressing international crisis to deal with, has managed to politically turn the corner.

But the experts I spoke with confirmed my feeling that this settling political wisdom is likely to be wrong. Johnson has survived (just) but is on last-chance probation with party leaders and MPs who worry that, when “things get back to normal,” the indelible stain of his previous actions will come back to haunt them. It is not likely that the British public will forget that, while they were making the greatest of social sacrifices demanded of them by their government, the leader of that government was hanging out at what seems to have been a fairly regular booze-fest.

Nor do future events seem likely to rescue Johnson. Year-on-year inflation rose in February to 6.2 percent, its highest rate in 30 years, with skyrocketing food, fuel and electricity costs leading the way. None of these are likely to drop in the near term, as the energy, food and commodities markets have all been roiled by the Ukraine war. Ironically, what the British press is calling “the cost-of-living crisis” is being exacerbated by the very war that politically saved the prime minister in the first place.

The next British local elections are set to be held on May 5, with the government possibly facing a drubbing that will once again call into question Johnson’s electoral prospects. This, coupled with the general misery inflation invariably brings and the seared memory of the prime minister partying while the country suffered, will do for Johnson at long last.

But you have to give the man credit for a brazen lack of self-awareness. Just this past week, Johnson held a party for Conservative MPs at the Park Plaza Hotel near the House of Commons. I hope he enjoyed himself; in political terms, it is likely to be his last.

This post was originally published on Arab News.

Johnson will never be able to overcome his Marie Antoinette problem

It is one of the most famous historical anecdotes in history and the prime example of a self-centered ruling elite narcissistically out of touch with its suffering people. When told of the fact that the hard-pressed peasants could no longer afford to buy their staple of bread, Marie Antoinette, the bubble-headed queen of pre-revolutionary France, supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.” The only problem with this telling, damning story is that there is absolutely no evidence that she ever said anything of the sort, with the whole fabricated incident most likely conjured up fully 50 years after the French Revolution.

But what makes the story memorable, and why it has lasted, is that she could well have said something exactly along those lines. The French aristocracy, mired in crippling debt and addicted to a lifestyle the country simply could no longer afford, quickly collapsed under its own weight in the late 1780s-early 1790s precisely because the famous quote does sum up its oblivious attitude. The story has stuck because, while technically not factual, it exposes a greater truth about the decadent French ruling elite and why history swept it away.

Amid all the bureaucratic hustle and bustle that presently surrounds UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s travails, what ultimately matters is not the details of what the civil servant, Sue Gray, concludes in her investigation about supposedly illegal parties both the prime minister and his senior staff attended on numerous occasions during the long lockdown period — even as they sonorously cautioned the rest of the country to stay strictly quarantined. It does not really matter the precise number of illicit gatherings (which will be counted on more than two hands), which ones Johnson actually attended or whether the prime minister knew the gatherings were technically “parties” or not.

In the end, it also does not matter overmuch about the police investigation into the incidents, which have superseded the Gray report, either. If convicted of committing an actual crime, the prime minister will merely be forced to pay the equivalent of a parking ticket. All this legal and bureaucratic flummery is a sign of our mediocre age, as if the rest of us need a technocratic, expert-driven determination as to what a party is. While British officialdom may thrill to such ridiculous trivialities, they do nothing in the long term to change Johnson’s basic Marie Antoinette problem. The precise details of his alleged crimes matter far less than the fact they confirm a damning, greater truth.

Johnson, at the height of the COVID-19 tragedy and with his suffering country forced to quarantine itself from burying their dead, thought the restrictive pandemic rules he himself had formulated were ridiculous and beneath him. Or, in the genuine words of arrogant, convicted 1980s tax evader Leona Helmsley, “only the little people pay taxes.” This stigma is what will dog Johnson for the rest of his days and, in the medium term, lead to his removal as prime minister.

The story of “partygate” merely confirms a larger, already-suspected truth about the man and his character. His elitist belief that rules are for the little people is incendiary and unforgivable, coupled with the mass suffering of his people. This reality cannot be investigated away or talked away and it will not be forgotten by the British people. The Johnson premiership is living on borrowed time.

A January Times/YouGov poll confirms this. When asked the question, “Do you believe the prime minister when he said the party he was attending was a work event?” an overwhelming 70 percent of those polled said no, with a mere 13 percent believing this lamest of excuses (there are reportedly pictures showing him cradling a beer at the time). As to whether Johnson should resign over this, a large majority, 63 to 24 percent, said that he should. Only 8 percent of those polled said the prime minister had been honest about the allegations of parties in 10 Downing Street. Given that Johnson has gone from saying there were no parties, to saying if there were parties he is shocked, to saying he attended some of those parties but thought they were work events, I am incredulous that he managed the 8 percent.

The Metropolitan Police investigation, and then the release of the Gray report, will buy Johnson some time, as will the upcoming local elections. Even an internal Conservative leadership challenge (and one is coming) could see him remain in power. But all of this is merely window dressing, obscuring the larger fact that, in policy terms, the historic Johnson premiership — dominated by Brexit and the pandemic — is at an end.

The Conservative Party, in many ways the most successful modern party in the Western world, has thrived precisely because of its lack of sentimentality about its leaders once they fall upon hard times. Famously, even the invincible Margaret Thatcher, winner of three barnstorming elections, was swiftly dispatched as her popularity plummeted over the poll tax. With the Tories about 10 points behind Labour in recent polling, and with the public’s mind made up about him, it is only a matter of time until Johnson is shown the door. He simply cannot overcome his Marie Antoinette problem.