Adrian Wooldridge, Tribune press service
In Shakespeare’s cycle of plays on Henry IV and Henry V, the dissolute Prince Hal finally transforms into a heroic patriotic king. Since becoming leader of the Conservative Party in May 2019, the dissolute Bo Jo – a man who was sacked from his first job in journalism for making up a quote and who only recently admitted how many children he has a (six) – struggles to transform into a statesman only to fail at the last moment. Boris Johnson put on smart suits but his hair was still a mess. He gave serious speeches but couldn’t help but make offbeat jokes (for example, describing the drive to increase ventilator supplies as “the last gasp operation”). It is therefore quite normal that his political career could be interrupted by “partygate”.
Johnson pleaded with everyone to suspend judgment until Sue Gray, the senior civil servant overseeing government ethics, delivers her report on several parties that took place at 10 Downing Street during the lockdown. Whether he can survive Gray’s report has always been an open question: There’s no doubt he attended a ‘bring your own drinks’ party in his backyard on May 20, 2020, and the party happened. at a time when everyone was banned from social gatherings. But subsequent revelations about another Downing Street party that took place the day before Prince Philip’s funeral involving a disco dance and a late-night mission to bring more drinks in a suitcase made his position even more precarious. And the fact that the source of these revelations appears to have been his former consiglieri, Dominic Cummings, bodes ill for the Prime Minister: Cummings was at Johnson’s side at the height of the pandemic and almost certainly has more scuttlebuts than he can use in his campaign to avenge his dismissal in November 2020. Public opinion, his greatest friend so far, is turning against him: three-quarters of Britons have a negative opinion of Johnson, according to YouGov, territory formerly occupied by Jeremy Corbyn; and Labor leads the Conservatives by 10 points, 38% to 28%. Anti-Boris sentiment within the Tory party is spreading from the usual suspects – Remainers, Scottish Tories and allies of his predecessor, Theresa May – to its main supporters, with hardline Brexiter Andrew Bridgen calling it from. The odds increase the day the 15% of Tory MPs needed to rush a leadership election write their letters to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee. A man who secured an 80-seat Tory majority is set to become a lame duck.
Lame duck status inevitably creates big problems in Britain’s idiosyncratic half-parliamentary, half-presidential political system: the Prime Minister has few formal powers other than the appointment of ministers but, since Margaret Thatcher, the post has become increasingly moreover presidential.
Under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s, reform initiatives came from powerful ministers such as Roy Jenkins in the Home Office and Tony Crosland in Education, while the Prime Minister balanced factions (and eventually descended into paranoia). Today, Downing Street rules politics and most Cabinet ministers are just numbers.
These problems will be compounded by the fact that Johnson was such a radical figure. He led a revolution within his own party – first against May and her attempt to produce a Brexit compromise, then against the One Nation wing of the party. This revolution turns out to be so bloody that he sacrifices his own majority by depriving 21 deputies, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, of the whip. He then attempted to realign British politics by tying working-class pro-Brexit voters to the Conservative Party through a combination of nationalism and big government. This new Toryism hinged on reconciling two very different constituencies: traditional conservative voters in the South, who wanted low taxes and small government, and new conservative voters in the North, who wanted bigger government and more intervention.