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Boris Johnson: Is the party over?

The crisis of the British Conservative Party has worsened with the excesses of its own leader, Boris Johnson. It seems that one of the most graceful ways out of this crisis would be to remove the prime minister

Paul Whiteley

PAUL WHITELEY Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex

Former British Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson coined the phrase ‘a week is a long time in politics’, something that recent events have no doubt confirmed. Until very recently, it didn’t look like Boris Johnson was going to be evicted from 10 Downing Street, but the leadership problem in the Conservative Party has morphed into something much more serious. It has become a constitutional crisis, as well as a political crisis for the prime minister.

Johnson was forced to apologize to Parliament on 12 January, when he could no longer deny the clear evidence that his staff had gathered in a large group in the garden of 10 Downing Street while the citizens of the United Kingdom submitted to strict confinement.

The constitutional crisis has two aspects. The first is the matter of lies in Parliament. The prime minister alleges that the May meeting was a “work act” and therefore could be said to “technically fall within the guidelines” at the time.

Many will have welcomed this statement with great skepticism, especially those who faced criminal charges for meeting with other people abroad during the period in question. At that time you were only allowed to meet someone outside your home when they were abroad. In-person business meetings were only allowed when they were “absolutely necessary.”

If Johnson has been lying to Parliament by claiming that the rules were followed when they were not, it is a violation of the Ministerial Code. In the past, this infringement has not only resulted in the removal of ministers from the front row, but even in the expulsion of Members of Parliament.

The 1963 Profumo case is a clear example of this. When John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, lied to Parliament about his extramarital affair with Christine Keeler, he ended up having to leave Parliament. The scandal ended up bringing down the government.

Possible crime

The second constitutional issue relates to the police investigation of the Downing Street party during the May 2020 lockdown. During Question Time with the Prime Minister on January 12, Johnson admitted that he attended this event. The meeting took place when the rest of the country was heavily blocked. He has claimed that the party was a “work event”, but if the police investigation determines that it did violate the rules, it would mean that Johnson and the other participants were committing a crime. Lying to Parliament and breaking the rules of confinement are two crimes that lead to resignation.

That said, the political consequences of the crisis are likely to be the most important. Citizen reaction is evident in a recent poll published in the Independent, which shows that two-thirds of voters think Johnson should resign. Conservative MPs now know that Johnson is no longer an electoral winner and are likely to fear for the safety of their seats. For the party to recover, it will have to face this fact.

How Other Prime Ministers Lost Their Positions

It’s interesting to put the Johnson crisis in context by looking at the reasons why prime ministers have resigned in the past. Since the end of World War II, the UK has had 15 prime ministers. The most common reason for them to resign was to lose the election. This happened to Winston Churchill in 1945, Clement Attlee in 1951, Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, Edward Heath in 1974, Jim Callaghan in 1979, John Major in 1997, and Gordon Brown in 2010, all of whom lost. general elections. We can add David Cameron to the list since he lost the EU referendum in 2016, and also Theresa May because she withdrew after losing the European Parliament elections in 2019.

The second most common reason for resigning was poor health. This explains why Churchill resigned from his second term in April 1955. It also explains why his successor Anthony Eden resigned in January 1957. He had a nervous breakdown after the Suez crisis of 1956, when Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt after its president, Gamel Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal.

Another case was that of Harold Wilson, who surprised most observers by resigning in March 1976 at a time when there was no particular crisis. It was later discovered that he was worried about his memory loss and impending dementia, which eventually caught up with him. Therefore, it counts as a prime minister who resigned due to poor health.

The two remaining cases that do not fit into these categories are Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The former was ousted by his own party in 1990, when conservative support in the polls plummeted following the introduction of the ill-advised electoral tax. Blair resigned after constant pressure from his successor, Brown, but his departure came amid his growing unpopularity after the Iraq war. It is debatable whether the relay would have passed if he had not faced such a public backlash.

P Whiteley, Author provided

An interesting question is the role of public opinion in all these resignations. The graph above looks at the approval ratings of the six prime ministers who did not resign immediately after losing the election. It does not include those who lost an election, as that is a clear sign that the electorate has rejected a leader.

It shows the approval ratings of these six prime ministers in the month they resigned, plus Johnson’s current approval rating. Churchill was clearly very popular when he resigned in April 1955 – his was a genuine case of illness that led to retirement. Eden, Macmillan and Wilson had respectable ratings and Blair was less popular, although he still had a 35% approval rating.

Similarities Between Thatcher and Johnson

Those who stand out the most are Thatcher and Johnson. However, there is an important difference between them. Both Thatcher and the Conservative Party were very unpopular at the time of their resignation, and the party was far behind Labor in voting intentions. Currently, Johnson’s ratings are much worse than his party’s. According to a YouGov poll released just before Christmas, the Tories were just 6 percentage points behind Labor in voting intentions.

This is likely to change in the near future as the prime minister’s political woes drag his party down in the polls. That means there is a clear route out of trouble for Tory MPs: remove Johnson and hope for a recovery in the polls by electing a new leader. The party did so successfully in 1990 when it removed Thatcher, so many will think there is a good chance of repeating the exercise this time.

This article has been published in The Conversation


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