Boris living on borrowed time

Boris living on borrowed time

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The adage that a cat has nine lives may well apply to Boris Johnson, who has defied political gravity for much of his career as an MP, London mayor, and prime minister. 

After what have been his worst weeks in 10 Downing Street, Johnson may have relinquished up to eight of those nine lives, with his premiership continuing the wild, rollercoaster ride of the past two and a half years.  His latest misfortune was last week’s sensational by-election loss in North Shropshire, an ultra-safe Conservative seat held by the party since the constituency’s creation in 1832. 

Two years after his landslide general election victory, Johnson is on the back foot, with predictions from some Conservative backbenchers of a leadership challenge in 2022, and former Scottish party leader Ruth Davidson warning he is “drinking in the last-chance saloon.”  What is increasingly clear is that while he may be one of the best campaigners in UK politics, with an ability to cut through to the electorate with simple slogans such as“Get Brexit Done,” his ability to govern is much weaker. 

The reason for this is his skill set.  For much of the past two years of the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson’sapproach has been chaotic and incoherent, reflecting the fact that his style is “big picture” and not details-focused, while his flamboyance is less suited to the demands of the pandemic era than before. 

To be sure, the decisions that Johnson has had to make during the health emergency have been difficult, and any leader would have made mistakes.  Nevertheless, the UK has one of the worst per capita death rates in the world, and its economy was one of the hardest hit in the G20.   

Worse could yet come if Britain heads into another lockdown this winter, which seems increasingly possible given skyrocketing infection rates from the omicron variant.  Johnson has insisted such a lockdown won’t be needed, and it will be a further body blow for his political credibility and authority if this is required. 

Already, he is being roundly criticized by right-wing MPs and libertarians, along with leading conservative-leaning newspapers such as the Telegraph and Daily Mail, for only modestly tightening restrictions. With more possible soon, his political space to act is narrow.          

While Johnson has long had critics within the ruling Conservatives, there is growing disquiet within the party about whether he can last until the next general election.  When he scored his huge win in December 2019, it was widely forecast that he could remain in office for much of the 2020s, but the rollercoaster ride that his premiership is proving means his term could end far sooner. 

While Boris Johnson has long had critics within the ruling Conservatives, there is growing disquiet within the party about whether he can last until the next general election.

Andrew Hammond

This is not just because of Johnson’s stumbling political performance during the pandemic.  Problems alsocome from his extraordinary, gambling-style approach to governance.

From the start of his premiership Johnson deliberately took a more adversarial approach to Brexit than his predecessor, Theresa May. This culminated in his suspension of Parliament, a decision later ruled illegal by the Supreme Court — embarrassing the Queen, who had to formally approve Johnson’s suspension request.

To be sure, some of Johnson’s gambles have paid off. He took a major risk in pushing for a pre-Christmas election in 2019, the first in December for a century, at a time of extraordinary political volatility — althoughwere it not for strategic and tactical blunders by opposition parties, Johnson would have faced a far tougher campaign and closer result. 

Since 2020, however, the prime minister’s “high wire” approach to governance has generally backfired. He originally opted for an “outlier” pandemic strategy, styled by some as a “herd immunity” approach, which was out of kilter with many countries that imposed restrictive measures more quickly, with much more mass testing.    

Fast forward 18 months and there are still big questions over the government’s pandemic strategy, and public outrage over senior Conservative politicians and staff flouting restrictions.  While Johnson previously had much goodwill from the nation after his own brush with death from coronavirus last year, and was riding high in the polls, Labour has, at least temporarily, overtaken the Tories in some surveys by double digits.      

This gathering storm could yet lead to an ignominious end to Johnson's political career as early as 2022.  Despite his hold on power seeming unassailable even six months ago, his premature departure from office after May’s local elections is a growing possibility.    

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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