The House of Commons will be voting on referring the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the privileges committee. The vote, called for by the opposition, would mean that the committee must investigate whether he had misled the House by claiming that no rules were broken. This would be the latest development in the Partygate saga surrounding the government.
It is now confirmed that government employees held at least 12 parties at Downing Street and other offices in Westminster during the lockdown periods of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. When it was revealed by the media earlier, Johnson repeatedly told MPs in parliament that “no rules were broken”. But the case was referred to the Metropolitan Police and its investigation concluded that rules were broken, and fixed fines were issued to a number of officials including the prime minister, his wife Carrie Symonds, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak.
As police issued a penalty to Johnson, he became the first British prime minister to commit a criminal offence while in office. That revived talk of a possible coup to oust him. But Johnson insisted he would not resign, and his allies in the ruling Conservative Party lent him their support.
Even if parliament voted to question him on “misleading the House”, that would not be a no-confidence vote. The only way to remove him is a coup to replace him from within his own party. Talk of such a move was in the air before but Johnson managed to weather the storm and survive. He has been playing as many political games as possible to secure his position in a clever way: placating his party leaders, reshuffling cabinet to move close allies up and demote adversaries, and appealing to the British public with the idea that he is their best choice.
These ploys worked even before he won the party leadership, replacing Theresa May in 2019. As the Conservatives are a majority in parliament and the rebellion against him within the party is contained, the opposition has no chance of voting him out, and his party would be “stupid to ditch him... he is still their best chance of winning” the next election, as Oxford University historian and political analyst Andrew Hammond told Al-Ahram Weekly.
A general election is still three years away, but there is a local election on 5 May in which the Conservative Party will struggle. Yet so will the Labour Party. Opinion polls are causing some concern among ruling party members, with the latest, conducted by J L Partners for The Times newspaper last week, reflecting a 72 per cent negative view of the prime minister, more than four times the proportion of positive responses. The most common word used was “liar”.
But opinion polls matter more in general elections, and the public backlash does not appear strong enough to enable the opposition to overtake the Conservatives. Though local elections are sometimes used as a guide to national election results, it is still too early to tell. Therefore, the ruling party might just “wait and see. Labour won’t do so well [in the local elections next month]. They know this. Post-Corbyn Labour is an empty shell. So why ditch him”, Hammond says, referring to a weak Labour party after it ousted its previous left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn.
So far Boris Johnson has proved to be a politically skilled maverick. His short tenure of leadership reinforced what many commentators see as a “conservative neglect of the law and rules”. Last November Johnson wanted to change the rules to save Conservative MP Owen Patterson found guilty of corruption by the Commons Standard committee. The MP finally resigned and Johnson made a U-turn, dropping the proposal to change the law. He stood by close allies accused of breaking the law like Interior Minister Priti Patel, former health minister Matt Hancock and others.
Since he was indicted by the police in the Partygate investigation, Johnson has kept pressing with “things as usual” to tell MPs and the public that he is “focussed on the job at hand”. He went to Kyiv to meet the Ukrainian president and is going to India to meet the Indian prime minister. He is working on a way to alleviate the burden of rising costs of living for the British public. Though all these efforts might yield little or nothing, it helps Boris Johnson avoid being dragged down by his government misdeeds.
The British prime minister might survive this storm like many before, but it will leave him more politically vulnerable as almost all political analysts conclude. His house might be dented, but not politically finished. One of the main factors helping him, besides the base of supporters in his own party, is the weakness of the opposition. There is enough time before the general election in May 2025 to correct things providing no more political disasters arise.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.