Dec 20, 2021 - World

Boris Johnson has gone from life of the party to liability

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a police station visit in London on Monday. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Until recently, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's popularity within his party and with the public made his position appear almost invulnerable. Now 6 in 10 Brits think he'll be out of a job by the end of next year.

By the numbers: Johnson's approval ratings have plummeted to a record-low 30%, his Brexit negotiator just abandoned ship, and his image as an electoral juggernaut has been tainted.

How it happened: Johnson has faced relentless headlines since early November about "sleaze" in his party ranks (he moved to change ethics rules in an ill-fated attempt to save scandal-tainted Brexiteer Member of Parliament Owen Paterson) and his own home (he used an undeclared donation to refurbish 10 Downing Street).

  • He's faced brutal press coverage for matters trivial (the bizarre speech in which he lost his place and rambled about Peppa Pig) and substantial (the resignation of Brexit Minister David Frost over the direction of Johnson's government).
  • On COVID-19, he's tried to walk a tightrope between scientific advisers pushing a stronger response to the Omicron wave and Conservative backbenchers resisting any such steps — 100 of whom rebelled against Johnson in last week's vote to require COVID passes to enter certain large venues.

Then there are the parties, or "work meetings," depending on whom you ask.

  • Johnson denied an initial wave of reports about Christmas parties in Downing Street during last year's strict lockdown. Then came a leaked video of his spokesperson joking about just such a party at the time.
  • Johnson tasked Cabinet Secretary Simon Case with investigating whether any such parties had taken place, but Case stepped down after it emerged that his office might have hosted one.

On Sunday, the Guardian published a photo, taken during another strict lockdown in May 2020, of Johnson seated with his wife and aides in the Downing Street garden, with wine and cheese on the table and a dozen more aides gathered in the background.

  • Johnson insists the photo shows "people at work talking about work." Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab bolstered his own claim of a work meeting by noting that the people in the photo were wearing suits (most of them weren't).

The big picture: Johnson's political allies have forgiven him all manner of sins in the past because he's a proven election winner.

  • Since London started directly electing mayors in 2000, Johnson is the only Conservative to win. He did it twice.
  • Johnson led the underdog pro-Brexit campaign, cruised through the 2019 Conservative leadership election, and then won the party's biggest general election landslide in three decades.
  • But when Paterson's seat was up for a special election on Thursday, the Conservative candidate was badgered with questions about Johnson's integrity (which he declined to answer). The Conservatives lost a seat they had held for 200 years, and the party's former electoral savior began to look like a liability.

State of play: Labour currently leads the Conservatives in the polls for the first time since Johnson became Tory leader, but an election isn't due until 2024.

  • If Johnson is indeed to be ousted in 2022, the shove will have to come from within his own party. Imminent action on that front seems unlikely, though Conservative MPs have started knifing Johnson anonymously in the press.
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