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.