Struggling to Survive, Boris Johnson Circles the Wagons

Struggling to Survive, Boris Johnson Circles the Wagons

LONDON — With more than a dozen Conservative lawmakers calling on him to quit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain circled the wagons Tuesday, shuffling his top team and hiring a new chief whip to contain a mutiny within his party over a swirling scandal over lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.

So determined is the prime minister to hang on to his job that, according to his new media chief, Guto Harri, Mr. Johnson burst into an impromptu rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s song, “I Will Survive” at a recent meeting.

Despite those efforts by Mr. Johnson, and his resolve, analysts are wondering whether it is too late to rescue the authority of a prime minister now under investigation by police for breaches of the lockdown laws he himself made.

“Once you begin to look like a loser, it’s quite difficult to turn that around,” said Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow at U.K. in a Changing Europe, a research institute. Ms. Rutter worked as a civil servant in Downing Street for former Prime Minister John Major, whose government never recovered after a financial crisis in 1992 but limped on, wounded, for more than four more years before suffering a landslide election defeat.

Though she believes Mr. Johnson is not yet in that predicament, she notes some similarities, including plunging opinion polls and the fact that potential successors, including the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, seem to be positioning themselves for the top job.

“When a government gets a smell of death around it, it’s quite difficult to shake it off,” she said.

Once a prime minister is on the ropes, discipline among lawmakers tends to break down, civil servants lose their reverence for Downing Street and high-caliber candidates politely decline top jobs in Downing Street. The media — including usually loyal publications — turns hostile, policy announcements are drowned out by leadership speculation, and prime ministerial misjudgments develop into crises.

All those factors are now afflicting Mr. Johnson, whose latest unforced error was to accuse the opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer — a former chief prosecutor — of failing to bring to justice a notorious sex offender, Jimmy Savile. Mr. Starmer was not involved in the case, and Mr. Johnson later argued that he was talking about taking responsibility for the actions of more junior staff.

That “clarification” did not satisfy one of Mr. Johnson’s closest aides, Munira Mirza, who quit last week, accusing the prime minister of making a “scurrilous accusation,” or Mr. Sunak, who told reporters he would not have uttered those words himself.

On Monday, Mr. Starmer was mobbed by anti-vaccine protesters, some of whom accused him of defending a pedophile, prompting critics to blame Mr. Johnson for inspiring the incident.

Several Conservative lawmakers called on Mr. Johnson to make a full apology, which Downing Street declined to do Tuesday as it pressed ahead with some internal staffing changes following the resignation of five aides last week.

Chris Heaton-Harris, a respected and popular minister, was named as the new Conservative chief whip, in charge of party discipline, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was shuffled from leader of the House of Commons was appointed the newly created “Brexit opportunities minister.”

Over the weekend, Mr. Johnson brought in Mr. Harri, a former aide and an experienced ex-BBC journalist, as his new communications chief, and gave Steve Barclay, a cabinet minister, new responsibilities as his main aide.

But already things are not going to plan. Mr. Harri’s first defense of his boss included a statement that the prime minister is “not a complete clown,” and there are growing questions about the new media chief’s recent work as a lobbyist for the Chinese company Huawei.

Mr. Barclay’s appointment left analysts wondering how he will do two different jobs, with Ms. Rutter concluding that the result looks like “a mess.”

Though Mr. Johnson could once rely on strong support from pro-Brexit publications such as the Daily Telegraph, a paper which once employed him as a reporter and then a columnist, that era appears over.

Last week a document outlining Mr. Johnson’s marquee policy of “leveling up” — or spreading prosperity throughout the country — was described by Allister Heath, a columnist at the Daily Telegraph, as “a tragic mush” and proof that the government “no longer really believes in anything, not even its own self-preservation.”

Mr. Johnson’s protestations that he knew nothing of Downing Street parties have particularly enraged those who opposed coronavirus restrictions all along.

“Not even his most ardent fan would claim that Boris Johnson has a monogamous relationship with the truth, but such flagrant infidelity is starting to become insulting,” Allison Pearson wrote in a column in the same publication.

Mr. Sunak is being so closely watched by the media that a claim from Mr. Johnson that he had the support of his chancellor was front page news for the Daily Express newspaper.

Nonetheless, Charles Lewington, a former media chief for the Conservative Party during the 1990s, believes that Mr. Johnson’s position is much stronger than Mr. Major’s was because he enjoys a parliamentary majority of around 80 and there is no consensus on who would succeed him.

A no-confidence vote against him would require formal requests from 54 Conservative lawmakers. Around a dozen have declared that they have done so, although, as the process is secret, the real number is likely to be higher. But even if there is a vote, Mr. Johnson can survive if he wins the support of half of the 360 Conservative lawmakers.

“The media forget that the threshold for removing a prime minister is very high,” said Mr. Lewington, who is now chief executive of Hanover Communications, a public affairs firm. And, he said, “The party cannot agree on who would replace him — there’s no one charismatic figure waiting in the wings.”

To establish his personal authority Mr. Johnson needs to tackle “the personal narrative around his loose morals and of not running a values-based organization,” said Mr. Lewington.

In the aftermath of a pandemic that saw billions of pounds spent in subsidies, the Tories also need to craft a convincing economic message, he added.

But another veteran of the British political scene believes that only a big international crisis can turn the media attention away from Mr. Johnson’s personal failings.

“To change the narrative, you need an external event,” said Tim Yeo, a former Conservative minister, who recalled how the Falklands War helped to rescue the premiership of Margaret Thatcher in 1982.

Mr. Johnson has recently taken on a prominent role as a defender of Ukraine against Russian aggression, traveling to Kyiv last week.

But though the escalating crisis in Ukraine could grab media attention, it is unlikely to do that for long.

Despite Mr. Johnson’s reputation as a skilled political survivor, his prospects of restoring his battered authority do not look good, Mr. Yeo said.

“Boris Johnson has a very big majority in Parliament, but what we have got is a big issue about the integrity of the prime minister,” Mr. Yeo added. “He may well survive for a bit but the danger for him is the drip, drip, drip or further damaging news and real anger among the public. I don’t see how he can get back from this.”

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