British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was fined after it was found he had violated the government’s COVID regulation during the lockdown during an indoor gathering celebrating his birthday. Johnson, who won a historic majority in the 2019 elections, is the first sitting PM who has been found to have broken the law, forcing many to discuss the political future of Boris Johnson.
The political position of Johnson has been unstable for some months, as the combination of the high cost of living and the “partygate” scandal has sapped the popularity of the ruling Conservatives, who are polling six points behind the Labour Party, ultimately putting Johnson in serious risk of losing his post as the leader of the Tories.
The fine is the latest episode of the “partygate” scandal, which has accused Johnson of violating his own COVID regulations and holding parties in 10 Downing Street. The allegations might seem trivial, especially as American politicians have repeatedly broken COVID mandates, but they have been political dynamite for Johnson, as a majority of the population thinks he should resign from office.
Despite Boris quickly apologizing for the wrongdoing, and a vast number of Tory MPs publicly backing him, it is still unlikely that this is the last episode of the “partygate” scandal. The London police are still investigating other potential breaches involving Johnson, while senior government official Sue Gray is still scheduled to release a full report on the gatherings at 10 Downing Street, which could create even more political damage to Johnson.
Why Boris might still remain in office for a while
Although things do look dire for Boris, he has a history of defying expectations and achieving major political wins. In fact, at the beginning of 2022, the media was already asking if Johnson would be able to survive as Prime Minister as more revelations over the “Partygate” scandal were made public, Months later, Johnson remains in office. Currently, the PM has two factors that will help him to stay in office, at least in the short term: Ukraine and a lack of challengers for the post.
Boris has led Britain’s forceful and proactive response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Johnson himself has been labeled as Russia’s “public enemy number one” by the Kremlin. Although the initial phase of the Russian invasion appears to have failed, the situation on the ground remains critical as Russian troops prepare to make a grand offensive in Eastern Ukraine.
The delicate geopolitical situation, and Johnson’s effective response to it, might deter Conservative MPs to push for the ouster of the PM for a while, as it would be unwise to plunge the government into chaos at the moment. Some Conservative MPs have already recanted their decision to try to depose Johnson as a result of the war in Ukraine.
One of the most important factors playing in favor of Boris is that it appears there is no politician ready to succeed him. The most obvious candidate, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, was also fined for violating COVID rules and has been embroiled in a controversy regarding his wife’s tax status, debilitating his chances to challenge Johnson. The lack of a contender would play in Johnson’s hands, as he could frame his remaining in power as a choice between status quo and chaos.
The rules of the Conservative Party are also an ally of Boris Johnson’s plan to stay in office. For Johnson to be replaced as the leader of the Conservative Party, 15% of Conservative MPs need to submit a letter of no-confidence to the party, which then would open a no-confidence vote on Johnson. Boris would only need to win a simple majority to remain in office and, if he wins, a new vote cannot be called for at least one more year.
Since a vote of no confidence can only be called once a year, Johnson’s opponents would need to be very sure that their attempt will succeed. Right now, it is not sure if a majority of Tory MPs are ready to ditch Johnson.
The May Local elections might be crucial for the political future of Boris Johnson
A key event that would determine Johnson’s political future will be Britain’s local elections in May since one of the most important political assets for Boris has been his electoral appeal. The May elections will be the first electoral test for the Tories since the “Partygate” scandal broke out, and they will put Boris to the test.
If the Conservatives manage to have a decent showing in the local elections, it would strengthen Johnson’s case that the “Partygate” scandal is not really resonating with the average voter and that it would be better for the Conservatives to avoid a civil war that would damage their public image and focus on governing and preparing the party for the 2024 elections.
If the Conservatives have a terrible showing in the elections, then it would give clear evidence to Boris’ opponents that the PM is proving to be an electoral liability for the party. With his main political asset seemingly destroyed, Johnson will find it very difficult to remain in office until the next election, as the Conservatives might think that it is better to risk an uncomfortable internal war than to risk losing an election under Boris.
Boris Johnson might be facing a daunting set of political obstacles that would have destroyed any previous Prime Minister. However, many politicians and analysts have underestimated Boris or prematurely declared his political death, only to be proven wrong by Johnson.