The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shown himself to be a master of political survival with a Houdini-like ability to get out of every situation that triggered calls for his head. As a string of scandals scarring his government got stretched in his protecting an MP who had admitted to excessive drinking and sexual misconduct at a party, it appeared it was one scandal too far. As two of his top ministers handed in their resignations within minutes of each other on Tuesday, more “Go Boris”, “Bye Boris” moments seem to have arrived, this time around with a ring of seeming finality.
In keeping with his record of standing up to challenges to his office, Mr Johnson moved swiftly to gather the remainder of his Cabinet behind him even as he announced replacements for his chancellor Rishi Sunak and his health minister Sajid Javid, both seen as potential challengers. Having conjured up a 59 per cent majority in the last confidence vote of the Tory party, Johnson stays ensconced just as those opposed to him are gathering forces, intent upon changing the rules of the 1922 Committee that bar another confidence vote for a year at least.
There are sections within his party who blame him, and not without basis, for his government’s mishandling the fallout of each problem, beginning with the “Patygate” scandal in which he became the first British PM to be fined, one among 125 such fines handed down for breach of Covid protocols in lockdown-breaking parties. A similar vein of dissembling first to cover up and then admit and later apologise was visible in his government’s actions in the wake of a second successive major scandal, this involving the MP Chris Pincher.
What is different now is that there is considerably greater discontent on the Tory backbenchers after clear political warnings of how the public views the party came in two stinging by-election defeats in Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton. Also, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden resigned while Mr Javid and Mr Sunak parted after casting aspersions on the government’s integrity as well as the manner of its working through every crisis point.
The key to the problems plaguing Mr Johnson’s government may lie in his own personality as he sets the tone for behaviour. With such a colourful personal life, can the Prime Minister reprimand anyone in his party who behaves inappropriately? And yet it was his personality more than his policies that catapulted him to the head of the party. As the loudest Brexiteer at an inflection point in European history, his politics was seen as credible enough for Mr Johnson to have led the Tories to their biggest electoral victory since the time of Margaret Thatcher.
The question is whether the Tories will even attempt to go into the next general election under his leadership when all the signs seem to point to its perils. British bookmakers, who fancy themselves to be as well-informed as weathercocks, have made the former defence secretary, Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss the first three favourites though the Tory party members seem to favour the current defence secretary, Ben Wallace.
Whether by design or chance, Mr Johnson has managed to stay afloat because the succession question was always hanging fire with no major figure emerging from within his party as a clear rival. A flurry of departures, with a total of 21 resignations including those of two more ministers striking the party in less than a day is indicative of a split that cannot be forded now as “trust, truth and integrity” seem to have been eroded in the three years under the journalist-turned-politician Boris Johnson.