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.

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.