LONDON (CN) — The fragile position of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was further weakened on Thursday, after Parliament overcame the Conservative government's large legislative majority to force what is now the third inquiry into pandemic restriction rule-breaking in the heart of government.
In an extensive parliamentary debate which veered between introspection, theology and palpable anger, members of Parliament from all parties expressed deep frustration at the country’s ailing leader, who was absent from the chamber while on a visit to India. The motion to investigate the prime minister for misconduct was raised by Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer, and was passed without dissent after Conservative whips realized they did not have the numbers to block the proposal.
Opening the debate, Starmer said, “I think the prime minister’s lost trust, I don’t think he has the moral authority to lead, and I think he should go.” He challenged rival MPs to consider “whether they’re still prepared to go on defending the indefensible.”
The new parliamentary inquiry seeks to determine whether Johnson deliberately misled Parliament in his repeated guarantees that no parties took place in 10 Downing Street while coronavirus lockdown measures were in place. Last week, Johnson was fined by police for attending a birthday event in Summer 2020 in contravention of strict limits on social gatherings in force at the time. More fines for attendance of further parties are widely expected in the coming weeks.
When the allegations first emerged last December, Johnson denied that any rule-breaking had taken place, telling Parliament that “all guidance was followed completely in No 10.” The inquiry will therefore seek to determine whether Johnson, who has been found by police to have broken the rules himself, was knowingly misleading Parliament.
Johnson has claimed that he was not aware that the event he attended was a party, and did not realize it could constitute a breach of the rules. The law at the time stated that “no person may participate in a gathering which consists of two or more people and takes place indoors” unless “the gathering is reasonably necessary for work purposes.” The event in question, a birthday celebration for Johnson himself, is reported to have been attended by up to 30 people.
Under parliamentary rules, ministers who unknowingly mislead Parliament are expected to publicly correct the record. But ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament are expected to resign. This expectation, however, is a convention rather than a requirement, and Johnson has developed a reputation for breaking conventions and norms since he became prime minister in 2019. Thus the debate in Parliament on Thursday focused not only on the prime minister’s conduct, but also perceived flaws in the United Kingdom's uncodified constitution, which is heavily reliant on conventions being followed and precedent being respected.
The government's inability to block the new inquiry demonstrated just how little authority the prime minister now commands among his party. The issue has become politically toxic in the U.K. due to the furious reaction of much of the public. For months, British television news has been filled with harrowing stories of people separated from dying relatives due to the restrictions in place at the time. The perception that those who had made the rules were not following them has reopened painful wounds across the country, and MPs have been overwhelmed by emails from angry constituents on the issue.
As a result of the scandal, Johnson’s public popularity has collapsed. Polling shows that 80% of the British public believe he is lying, 70% think he is incompetent, and more than two-thirds think he is bad at his job. The damning figures suggest that the damage done to the prime minister is probably unrecoverable.
A visibly frustrated Johnson has spent much of his trip in India, intended to strengthen post-Brexit trade relations, reluctantly fielding questions about the scandal. He has insisted that he will lead his party into the next general election – a sentiment not widely shared among his parliamentarians.
Yet his party has still not moved to remove him. The Conservatives have invested heavily in the Johnson brand, which just over two years ago helped to secure their best election result since 1987. Without Johnson’s name recognition or bombastic rhetoric, it is unclear that such a result could be repeated. Johnson’s leadership has also helped to paper over the cracks of what remains a party deeply divided over key issues, and frequently pulling in different directions. Any leadership election is likely to quickly descend into factionalism, at a time when the party’s polling is already tanking.
In addition, there is no obvious successor. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, long tipped for the top job, was also been fined by police for rule-breaking, and has suffered from a string of negative revelations about his financial arrangements. As a result, his polling figures have similarly collapsed, leaving the field wide open for possible successors.
The party’s reluctance to trigger a leadership contest notwithstanding, there are signs that even those most loyal to the prime minister are starting to pull away. Steve Baker, an arch-Brexiteer and Johnson ally, became a surprise rebel during Thursday’s debate. He said the prime minister had failed to show contrition for his mistakes, and that his conduct was “not good enough for me and not good enough for my voters”.
"I'm afraid I am now in a position," Baker said with some frustration, “where I have to acknowledge that if the prime minister occupied any other office of senior responsibility, if he was a secretary of state, if he was a minister of state, a parliamentary undersecretary, a permanent secretary, a director general, if he was a chief executive of a private company or a board director, he would be long gone.”
He added, “I'm sorry but for not obeying the letter and the spirit, the prime minister must be long gone. The prime minister should know the gig's up.”
More notable still is the silence of many of Johnson’s Cabinet colleagues, and the general absence of Conservative MPs during the debate. Being associated with Johnson – once electoral gold dust – now appears to be deeply unfashionable.
It is unlikely that the Conservatives will move to oust Johnson before local elections being held in two weeks. But if polling day proves to be a disaster for the party, then the final straw may well be broken. The prime minister, markedly averse to defeat, will no doubt try to hang on, but his future ultimately rests on the continued patience of increasingly exasperated Conservatives.
After his thumping election victory in 2019, Johnson hailed his party as having won “the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before.” It is hard to see how a frontman now widely viewed as fundamentally untrustworthy can retain those critical voters on whom his power depends.
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