How we knew Boris Johnson’s days were numbered

There is a hypocrisy to my profession that I find especially galling; the rush to protect at all costs the feelings of mediocrity. All too often, those who are analytically on the money are pressured into somehow not mentioning this salient fact, if only to spare the feelings of the legions of inept snake-oil salesmen out there. On the other hand, the third rate disappear into a sea of one another, a school of fish of the overrated, who as quickly as possible change the subject from their egregious errors.

This is a terrible way to get better at anything. Political risk analysis resembles nothing so much as method acting. At the height of his powers, even the great Marlon Brando knew that he could continue to get better only if he dispassionately addressed what he did right in his performances, as well as what he had gotten wrong. In our case, as regular readers of this column well know, in getting “partygate” right months ago, there is much to be learned.

This past week’s Conservative Party leadership vote in Britain greatly favored the incumbent. First, with only a few hours between the referendum on Boris Johnson’s leadership being announced and the vote itself, rebels had almost no time to organize. Second, the prime minister started with the support of the 140 Tory MPs who were already on his government’s payroll — members of the Cabinet, junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries. As Johnson needed only half of the MPs plus one to side with him (180), this was a monumental advantage. Third, the rebellion was largely leaderless and without focus, so there was no single person or idea to rally around.

Despite these awesome advantages, the result was a disaster for the PM. In the end, fully 41 percent of Tory MPs (148) voted to remove him. To put this in the proper historical context, his Pyrrhic victory came by the exact same percentage as that of Margaret Thatcher in 1990; two days later, she was unceremoniously turfed out of No. 10. Strikingly, it appears that fully three-quarters of Tory backbench MPs, who were free to vote as they chose, opted to rebel. As we have said for months, and again just last week, the prime minister was always likely to win the vote “ugly,” and be mortally wounded while carrying on. All of this has come to pass.

What did we see that so many missed? A real understanding of Greek classics, Johnson’s personal biography and the history of the British Conservative Party were essential. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it so well: “Character is destiny.” A person making it to the top of politics in any country does not change their spots upon getting there. More often, overconfident in their abilities, they instead double down on seeing their character as an essential advantage that explains their worldly success.

In the case of Johnson, this classical way of looking at the world is confirmed regarding partygate, when he was on the one hand urging people not to visit their dying loved ones, while on the other he treated No. 10 as a nightclub. Yet, speaking just before the vote was called, the prime minister astonishingly said: “I’d do it again,” in reference to a drinks party he attended for a leaving colleague while the rest of the country was locked down. The gloomy Greek notion that people tend to learn nothing about their failings gave us a unique insight into how Johnson would react to partygate.

Second, the prime minister’s biography made it crystal clear that partygate was merely the foreground — Johnson was always overwhelmingly likely to get himself into some sort of moral difficulty. Whether being fired for lying while a high-flying journalist, his famously chaotic private life or his breezy, well-documented unconcern for the details of governing, his track record showed this was a train wreck always waiting to happen. In the end, Johnson’s present difficulties come down to the fact that the world changed, while he stayed the same. A cavalier disregard for the rules seemed interestingly eccentric in quieter days. During the mass tragedy of the pandemic, it instead seemed elitist, hypocritical and almost diabolical.

Third, knowledge of how the Tory party works is essential. It has been the most successful political party in modern history for one quality above all: A ruthless unsentimentality. Johnson’s ties to the Conservative Party have always been transactional. He did not work his way up through the ranks, but (as ever) jumped to the head of the line for the simple reason that he brought them electoral success in leftist London and broke the parliamentary logjam over Brexit in 2019. Now, with his winning ways deserting him, as Labour has an average eight to 10-point lead over the Tories in opinion polls, look for the party to defenestrate him within a year.

We cannot count on Johnson to do the decent thing and resign because, all his life, he has never done the decent thing. Instead, an enervating war of attrition is likely to follow, which could well gift the Labour Party victory in the next general election. All of this has been clear for a while, but only if we look at political risk through the right lenses.

This post was originally published by Arab News.

Due to ‘partygate,’ Johnson is about to run the gauntlet

As a form of military punishment during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618 to 1648, soldiers fighting for the Protestant cause were condemned to “run the gauntlet.” Forced to scamper for their lives between two rows of their colleagues who were armed with clubs and sticks, the punishment only came to an end after they had sustained myriad blows and somehow made it the length of the murderous line. The metaphor that developed from this punishment now accurately describes the state of Boris Johnson’s world.

Sue Gray’s recently published report on “partygate,” even in its muted, bureaucratic language, confirmed what we all knew before: The UK prime minister and his senior staff treated No. 10 Downing Street as a sort of nightclub, all the while hypocritically telling the long-suffering British public to stay away from loved ones, even if they were dying. Johnson’s lifelong, habitual disregard for the rules looked very different from the prism of the pandemic: Narcissistic, elitist and, worst of all, unserious.

Now Johnson’s real punishment (as well as his only chance at political redemption) actually begins. Step one is the looming vote of confidence that Johnson’s partygate follies are about to trigger, possibly as soon as next week, and at the latest at the end of June. The numbers to keep in mind are 54 and 180. If 15 percent of sitting Tory MPs (or 54 members) submit letters of no-confidence in Johnson to the head of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, an internal leadership challenge is automatically lodged. Given that 30 have already announced they have done so, this hurdle will be easy for Johnson’s enemies to vault.

However, the 180 MPs (or half the parliamentary party) needed to throw Johnson out of office is a much more difficult proposition altogether. For one thing, fully 140 Conservative MPs are already “on the payroll,” serving the prime minister either in Cabinet or in more junior positions as parliamentary private secretaries. While surely not all of them will vote for Johnson, they have a great incentive to do so, in order to keep their present jobs. As such, reaching the magic 180 number seems highly unlikely. One needs only to remember the 2018 example of the hapless Theresa May, who — despite her obvious ineptitude — managed to survive a confidence vote, winning the backing of 63 percent of her MPs.

Step two in Johnson running the gauntlet is surviving the impending very bad news that is likely to follow the two by-elections of June 23. These electoral contests, which are called to fill vacant parliamentary seats, are often used both to test the national mood and to protest against the present government — two factors working mightily against the PM.

The Wakefield by-election in West Yorkshire tests the proposition that Johnson can hold onto the “red wall” of formerly safe Labour seats that have been attracted by Johnson personally, even as they were repelled by the leftward lurch of the Labour Party under its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn. At present, polling seems to show that the Tories are very likely to lose.

The Tiverton and Honiton by-election in Devon on the same day could amount to another stake in Johnson’s heart. Normally the safest of Tory seats (in 2019, the Conservative candidate had an almighty 24,000-vote majority), here it is the resurgent Liberal Democrats who are mounting a serious electoral challenge. If the Tories shockingly lose both, Johnson is not long for the premiership, though he will have a year’s grace to any further leadership challenge if he sees off the present one.

By far the best argument Johnson has left in the face of his many detractors is that he, and he alone, has the electoral magic to deliver victory for the party, as he did twice in leftist London and momentously in 2019, when his election win delivered Brexit, breaking the deadlock in parliament. If Johnson no longer has the electoral pixie dust — instead dragging the party down in the general disgust at his antics — look for the unsentimental Tories to ditch him.

The most likely outcome from Johnson’s running of the gauntlet is precisely what this devilish punishment was initially devised to provide: A bloodied, bruised victim, staggering on from the leadership contest, further bludgeoned by by-election disasters, wounded, but not quite dead.

And still ahead of the PM would be the latest in the interminable investigations into his obviously lamentable behavior: In this case, the Commons Privileges Committee investigating whether he intentionally misled parliament. As this is almost impossible to prove (even though it is highly likely) and as the punishment is so draconian (he would have to resign immediately), Johnson will scrape this, too, wounded as he is.

But at a certain point in running the gauntlet, it is not the individual blows that tell, but their collective force. May did indeed survive the initial leadership challenge against her, just like Margaret Thatcher “won” the first round of her Tory leadership contest in 1990. But both were dead on their feet, soon removed from power. Once again, this is what will happen. For all intents and purposes, Johnson’s premiership is at an effective end. It is only a matter of the blows and of time.

This post was originally published in Arab News.