Boris on the brink (again)

Boris on the brink (again)

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After a succession of public relations debacles in recent weeks, Boris Johnson’s government in the UK now faces a rebellion in the House of Commons over proposed new COVID restrictions.

With cases doubling every three days, the government has called for working from home again and for face masks to be compulsory in most public places. After a 9.9 percent economic slump because of restrictions last year, it is little surprise that the government’s announcements are being met with uproar.

“It’s not a lockdown,” the prime minister told a weary audience last week. Already reeling from the reaction to a bizarrespeech to business leaders last month that included surreal references to the children’s cartoon character Peppa Pig, Johnson then spent two weeks denying that a festive party took place in Downing Street offices last December apparently in breach of severe restrictions being faced by the British public, before he finally agreed to an investigation. The British public, who risked hefty fines for breaching coronavirus rules, are rightly disparaging about restrictions that the government itself seems unconcerned with observing.

Johnson’s supporters praise the UK’s colossal vaccination effort and the fact that “no leader had a playbook for dealing with the pandemic” to absolve the government of its shortcomings, but it is clear that the resurgence of COVID will be a profound challenge for Johnson’s leadership and a government that has grown complacent in the absence of effective parliamentary opposition.

Next week’s proposed introduction of a requirement for “vaccine passport” to enter nightclubs and other venues has angered many Tory MPs and rank and file Conservatives who prize individual freedom. Former minister and senior Tory MP Dr Liam Fox said: “We cannot allow permanent threats of overloading the National Health Service as a means to maintain semi-permanent restrictions on our people.” Such sentiment has been fueled by suspicions that the new measures are being introduced in an attempt to distract from the prime minister’s other troubles.

There will be a vote on the new rules in the House of Commons next week, when as many as 60 Tory MPs are expected to rebel against the government. That would normally herald a defeat, but in a further embarrassment to Johnson the new measures are likely to pass with the support of the opposition Labour Party.

There is a clearly a growing lack of confidence in Johnson within the Conservative Party, but rather than appreciate these concerns the prime minister appears determined to pursue an agenda at odds with his support base. Critics of the prime minister are emboldened, and public trust in the government has been undermined. The coming weeks will increasingly show that the diversionary tactics associated with the pandemic will no longer shield Johnson’s government from the thorough cross-examination that has been lacking. 

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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