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?”
Tory leaders and MPs worry that the indelible stain of his previous actions will come back to haunt them.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
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.
- John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also a senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via johnhulsman.substack.com.