Boris Johnson freezes, along with “Global Britain”

  • A number of scandals have left Mr. Johnson in political peril.
  • Johnson may be forced to leave office before having achieved his foreign policy goals.
  • The Prime Minister’s future now rests in the hands of his MPs.
Johnson - United Kingdom
Source: China Daily

Why is Boris Johnson freezing?

Boris Johnson blazed into the premiership with the most successful election result for the Conservatives since 1979 and a clear path to the mandate he sought to implement Brexit.  Throughout his first two years in office he successfully faced off numerous polemic incidents, seemingly without losing significant support from his main voter base or the conservative press.

Controversy appeared to be entwined in both his public political life and his private life. He has been described as a feel-good politician: irresponsible, humorous, and charming. Arguably, it is this style of management and politics, generally uncommon in the UK government, that has fielded him during these last turbulent years.

The beginning-of-the-end of this hot streak came toward the end of 2021 when Owen Paterson, an influential backbencher and former cabinet minister, was facing a 30-day suspension after being accused of breaching lobbying rules. Paterson persuaded Johnson and his government to back an amendment that would overrule his suspension and instead refer the case to a newly set-up parliamentary committee of MPs chaired by one of his Conservative colleagues.

After witnessing the outrage among opposition parties, the press, and some members of the Conservative party itself, the government made a U-turn and stated it would seek cross-party talks to achieve a wider reform of lobbying rules to prevent scandal. But the damage was done. The public became increasingly concerned over parliamentary misconduct amongst their elected MPs and their lucrative second jobs. For Boris Johnson, this was strike one.

More damaging yet is the revelation that Mr Johnson attended two birthday parties in Downing Street during a strict national lockdown. The British public has become increasingly frustrated with the explanations offered for his breaking of national rules: that he knew nothing about them and shared the public’s fury, before admitting he did know about them but was not there, then that he was there but did not think that they were parties, then that they may have been parties but no one had told him they broke the rules. This flouting of COVID restrictions imposed by the same government generated widespread outrage, which is strike two for the Prime Minister.

Mr. Johnson now finds himself in extreme political peril. The extent of the damage of his actions is evident in the results of the December by-election in North Shropshire, a historically “safe seat” for Conservatives, where the Liberal Democrats overturned a Tory majority to secure a victory on a 34% swing. Voters cited the lobbying and Partygate scandals as reasons for voting out the Tories. A poll conducted in December suggests that were a general election held now, Johnson would lose his seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

What is changing his temperature?

Answer: Johnson may still be ousted from government by disgruntled MPs. He would leave office without having fulfilled many of his foreign policy goals.

The danger now lies in the decisions of Johnson’s fellow party members. A confidence vote is on the table, but timing is crucial.  The inquiry of senior civil servant Sue Gray reported on the allegations of persistent rule breaking in No 10, but many of the findings of the report remain under investigation by the Metropolitan Police. Those who believe Johnson is on the way out and have their own eye on the party leadership will act accordingly with their own ambitions in mind. Johnson’s fate now rests in the actions of the MPs who hold the power to oust him, meaning the Prime Minister has lost a degree of power over his own government.

If Johnson were to leave office now, he would do so without having manifested his plans for the UK internationally. It was he who coined the phrase “Global Britain”, a call to the country’s extensive empire and international influence of the 20th century. A major selling point of Brexit, the UK would recoup this influence through prosperous trade deals with major economies, from the USA to those of the fast-growing Indo-Pacific

As of January 2022, there is no sight of a deal with the USA, and relations with the UK’s largest trading partner – the EU – are on thin ice over the placement of a customs border in Ireland. Experts note the deals successfully negotiated thus far, such as one with Australia, do not yield as highly for the UK as one might have hoped, while a deal with India hangs on looser immigration rules that divide the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, the government has been subject to criticism for aspects of its response to the crisis in Ukraine. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss gave an interview in Australia (as the crisis was unfolding) suggesting that Moscow and Beijing could work together to coordinate attacks in Europe and the Indo-Pacific respectively, a concern un-echoed by Britain’s allies. The comment demonstrates Britain’s push to promote itself as a strategic partner to Australia and the US in containing China, a priority of Johnson’s.

However, Truss’ response to the crisis sends mixed messages about Britain’s stance on Russian aggression. The UK defence secretary refutes Putin’s claims about the threat posed by Ukraine and its Western allies and the country prides itself on consistently meeting the NATO goal to spend 2% of GDP on defence. The absence of the Foreign Secretary from Europe in a time of crisis on the continent does not speak to Britain’s ambition for tackling Russian aggression. While the UK’s push for a seat at the table in the Indo-Pacific is a strategic move, losing the trust of its allies close to home is not.

What is driving the leader?

Answer: Lockdown was a necessary measure for Johnson’s government, but he did not feel a personal obligation to abide by the rules.

Johnson is a controversial figure and this has played to his advantage. Until recently, he employed a strategy of taking positions and performing U-turns at the last minute; this worked in the government’s favour by allowing them to successfully backtrack with minimal fallout. He is quoted at a 2018 event “My strategy is to litter my career with so many decoy mistakes, nobody knows which one to attack”; it is expected of him.

The strict lockdowns in the UK at the height of the pandemic were deemed necessary to protect the NHS, Britain’s public health service. The restrictions were heavily enforced, culminating in over 100,000 fines from March 2020 to June 2021. Johnson himself was briefly admitted to hospital with COVID-19, but made a full recovery. Were the NHS to have collapsed under him, this would have been considered a significant political failure. Furthermore, showing that his government could successfully guide the country and its healthcare system through the pandemic boosted his image, especially in the wake of Brexit. However, he was once accused of dismissing the toll the virus would take on British lives.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: A potential change in Conservative leadership, a severe loss of trust in politicians, and danger to British democracy.

If Boris Johnson resigns, there will be a party leadership contest, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss the current favourites to replace him. There may also be a general election. The polls suggest that the Tories are set to lose a significant number of seats. However, this is unlikely. Johnson has ridden out numerous scandals before and is insisting he will not resign. A general election would require 434 MPs to back it, or a motion of no confidence would have to be passed in the Government with a replacement Government unable to form within 2 weeks. Nonetheless, with two strikes against him, Johnson will remain on shaky ground for the remainder of his time in office.

Johnson’s actions have wider implications than his premiership. Trust in British politicians has dropped significantly, with 63% of Britons now believing politicians to be simply “out for themselves” as opposed to 48% in 2014. For voters, Johnson’s disrespect for rules confirms longstanding concerns about the kind of people who run the UK. Whoever succeeds Johnson will face lingering anger about his rule-breaking and deceit, as well as mistrust in his former colleagues.