Boris Johnson’s humble pie unlikely to save his job

Boris Johnson’s humble pie unlikely to save his job

Boris Johnson’s humble pie unlikely to save his job
Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions, House of Commons, London, Jan. 12, 2022. (AP Photo)
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There was something excruciating about last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. It was not about feeling sorry for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he was force-fed huge quantities of humble pie, but rather how, in his short time in this position, he has devalued the country’s highest elected office while treating the British people with utter contempt, especially in the midst of one of the most testing periods in our history.
Johnson’s premiership, at the time of writing, hangs by a thread. However, it is inconceivable that a prime minister who has lost the trust and respect of the country and continues to demonstrate irresponsibility and a complete lack of judgment, while handling himself without a shred of dignity, could hold on to power. All prime ministers eventually reach the point of no return, when their position becomes untenable, but Johnson has managed to achieve this in record time — and not necessarily due to his policies or his ideology (assuming he has one), but mainly because of his extremely flawed personality. At a time when the country desperately needs mature leadership with the interests of its people at its heart, it has found itself at the mercy of a populist leader who conclusively won the 2019 election riding a wave of anti-European and anti-foreigner sentiment.
It is tragic testimony to today’s Conservative Party and its representatives in Parliament that its main consideration in deciding whether or not to remove Johnson is about how much of an electoral liability he has become, and not that he has become a liability in the country’s recovery from a health catastrophe that has caused immeasurable suffering.
As the UK last week reached the heart-wrenching milestone of 150,000 COVID-19 deaths, it became clear that, during the first lockdown of the pandemic in May 2020, the prime minister attended a garden party at 10 Downing Street with at least 30 other people in attendance. Not only did this party take place in the prime minister’s official residence — and there are many more allegations coming to light of similar parties held there — but Johnson attended this one himself, showing a total lack of judgment or empathy for the suffering of millions across the country, as well as utter contempt for the laws that he and his government had put in place.
Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, has been given the unenviable responsibility of investigating the series of alleged parties that Johnson vehemently denied knowing about, let alone participating in, until last week, when the evidence became too conclusive regarding at least one of those occasions. It is mind-boggling to witness Johnson and his parliamentary allies attempting to hide behind a civil servant, whose superior is the prime minister and who the prime minister himself appointed. Despite this, they claim she is “independent.” These MPs know enough already to oblige them to do the decent thing and send Johnson packing immediately.
All of these shenanigans are taking place at a time when the UK is heading toward a perfect storm, if it is not already in the eye of it; an upheaval that the prime minister has played a crucial role in bringing about. Johnson might deserve some credit for the successful vaccine rollout, but his overall handling of the pandemic has been shambolic, with constant procrastination and vacillating between strategies in an attempt to contain it. This has resulted in the UK having one of the world’s highest rates of infections and deaths per capita. This comes on top of the aftershocks caused by Brexit, which are leaving no one with a shadow of a doubt that Johnson’s wish to depart the EU was not for ideological reasons, but was merely a vehicle for his personal ambition to become prime minister. This selfish journey has left delivery trucks driverless, while shortages in the shops have become the norm and the UK remains at loggerheads with Brussels over the Irish border issue.

All of these shenanigans are taking place at a time when the UK is heading toward a perfect storm, if it is not already in the eye of it.

Yossi Mekelberg

In the meantime, inflation is outpacing pay increases and families are being hit by higher taxes and soaring energy bills, resulting in a devastating fall in the standard of living that is disproportionately affecting the lower-paid. With local elections coming up in May, which always provide a useful barometer of the nation’s mood, the Conservative Party has to make some hard choices. It can either install a new prime minister before these elections and salvage what it can from them or take a more Machiavellian route and risk suffering a big hit by putting the entire blame on the prime minister and replacing him with someone who can distance themselves from the chaotic, untrustworthy and damaging Johnson era, and start afresh in preparation for the next general election.
Johnson’s magic as a vote-winner is rapidly vanishing, as opinion polls now give the opposition Labour Party a 10-point lead over the Conservatives, while the number of people who think he would make the best prime minister has dropped to half of what it was when his party won a big majority in the 2019 general election. Worse for Johnson is that 70 percent of the electorate think he is untrustworthy and doing badly as prime minister. This is the kind of situation where the ruthless Tories usually turn on their leader.
It is not only high noon for Johnson, but for the UK as a whole. In recent years, a majority of the British public has opted to fall for a shallow populism that may have provided some short-term nationalistic gratification, but the price is now being paid for it in the health service crisis and the economic mess. The likes of Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove, not to mention Nigel Farage, have turned politics into a circus devoid of ideology, conviction or loyalty to anyone or anything but themselves. It is time to end all this clowning around in government — and the sooner the better.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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