There is never a good time for a sitting government to become consumed by a political scandal so severe that its leader faces daily calls to resign.
But as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is embroiled in a crisis over allegations of numerous parties held in Downing Street while the rest of the UK was in lockdown, sparking national outrage, the timing is particularly tortuous for the governing Conservative party.
For weeks, Johnson and his loyalists tried to wait out the scandal by refusing to answer even the simplest of questions related to some of the parties, as a steady drip of revelations emerged on an almost daily basis.
But news of a “bring your own booze” party held in the Downing Street garden at the height of the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown forced the Prime Minister to apologize this week and admit he attended the event.
On Friday, the scandal worsened as it was revealed that a party was held in Downing Street the night before the funeral of Prince Philip. It was noted at the time that due to Covid-19 restrictions, the Queen was forced to mourn her husband at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle while sitting alone. The government apologized to the Queen, but more danger lurks on the horizon.
Johnson and the government have largely stuck to their line that further comment on the parties should be withheld until an investigation is completed by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant who has been tasked with producing a report on exactly what happened.
While the report itself cannot determine if any laws were broken, a detailed factual breakdown of what happened and why could pile further pressure on Johnson to resign. But the scope of the investigation could be narrow enough to avoid a smoking gun – and might not even be published in full – meaning Johnson may be able to ride out the scandal regardless of what the report says, even if that stokes further fury from his party and the electorate.
Despite his bad poll ratings, public anger at Johnson and his government, and the growing sense that the Prime Minister has become “so toxic he could drag us down with him,” as one senior Conservative put it, it’s likely that for the time being, his loudest critics within the Conservative Party are going to have to suck it up and continue supporting a man they resent.
A government minister told CNN that “he was an electoral asset in 2019 because he personified Brexit. But if it transpires he is no longer an electoral asset, they [Conservative lawmakers] might decide to get rid of him.”
In just a few months, there will be a perfect opportunity for a check on Johnson’s popularity when local elections are held across England, Scotland and Wales on May 5.
It is broadly accepted across the party that removing Johnson before this date would be extremely dangerous, as no one could be certain what the consequence would actually be.
“If the Conservatives are serious about removing Johnson, they must also be serious about replacing him with someone who can sincerely relaunch a party that has been in government since 2010,” said Will Jennings, professor of political science at Southampton University. “If they do get absolutely hammered at the locals, which is not out of the question and quite common for sitting governments, it would put that new leader immediately on the back foot.”
Multiple senior Conservatives told CNN that they are looking at the long summer recess as a potential window to get rid of Johnson, if the local elections truly are a disaster for Johnson.
That, one minister said, “would be the cleanest option as politics shuts down for the summer.”
A senior Conservative official said that any new leader would need “time to explain a project which would (have to) be more complicated than ‘Get Brexit Done,’” the slogan that helped Johnson win a landslide victory in 2019.
Their reasoning for this is that the 2019 issue was dominated by a single issue. Brexit was a roadblock that needed clearing and the public was frustrated and exhausted that three years since the vote, the UK was effectively unable to leave the European Union.
That new project, no easy task for a party that has been in power since 2010, would need to be fully built and ready to go before May 2024, the date of the next scheduled general election. And while that might sound like a long time in politics, following on from Johnson, a man who enjoyed enormous fame before taking office, would be extremely difficult for even the most competent political operator.
The scale of that task, combined with the unique nature of Johnson’s public persona, is what makes replacing him, even after potentially disastrous local election results, far from certain.
“It’s a super-tight judgement call, and one that is based more on guts than any actual metrics,” said Salma Shah, a former Conservative Party special adviser.
“On the one hand you have to consider whether it’s worth deposing a sitting PM for someone new who is entirely untested; on the other wonder whether doing nothing means you’re just going to watch your electoral hopes slide into oblivion,” she added.
The case for keeping Johnson rests on the fact that he might, despite everything, still be the best hope of the Conservative Party winning the next general election. According to the Conservative staffer, who has worked on multiple election campaigns, there is “nobody with a proper plan to replace him, the pitch is just ‘I’d do better.’”
Another senior Conservative, close to Johnson, told CNN that despite broad agreement he was “doing a horrible job,” it could create a bigger mess than it’s worth.
“He really doesn’t want to stop being Prime Minister,” which would make any fight very messy and, whatever the result, “it would probably make the party look disunited and chaotic” to the wider public, the senior Conservative said.
Finally, the economic conditions for the next election will not favor the Conservative Party. There is a looming cost-of-living crisis, inadequate public services, a pandemic to recover from and ongoing difficulties caused by Brexit.
It will be hard for any Conservative, especially those more economically prudent than Johnson, to handle these problems, given the party has been in power for so long. And there is an argument to be made that for all his flaws, Johnson – the devil they know and a highly successful campaigner – is the best option for the party to hang onto power. If he wins a smaller majority at the next general election, then his graceful exit could be negotiated with the party.
The case for removing him is somewhat simpler. Conservative staffers explained to CNN that they are fed up at their expected loyalty being taken for granted by a man who cares more about preserving his own power than that of the party he leads.
They are also sick and tired of the unforced errors coming from Downing Street. “Partygate” is just the latest in a string of scandals, ranging from Johnson trying to save the skin of one of his political allies after they’d breached lobbying rules, to questions over who was paying for a refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street apartment.
As Shah points out: “They need to consider how demoralized Tory staffers might be from all this. If they have lost faith in the PM then working for his government and campaigning to win an election under him will be a lot harder than in 2019.”
The Conservative Party is being forced to ask itself some very difficult questions at an incredibly hard time. Johnson is not a normal politician. It is simply impossible to say whether or not these scandals have cost him his ninth life, or if one year from now he will still be in charge.
Either way, Johnson, his government and his party face a horrible few months of pain that will likely get worse before it gets better. The harsh reality is that whatever the party decides to do, it will be an uphill struggle from now until the next general election – which they could well lose.
Between now and then, the party somehow needs to find the enthusiasm, energy and drive to gear up for a number of political fights. If it doesn’t, then it’s likely a new era of politics awaits the UK, as the party that oversaw austerity, delivered Brexit and tried to change the image of an entire nation, is swept from office and replaced with something very different.