British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won a staggering victory at the polls in 2019, sending Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn into retirement and giving the Conservatives an 80-seat majority.
Now, a series of scandals have raised serious questions about how much longer Johnson can hang on to power.
Questions about the way he handled the pandemic in 2020 changed into anger when it was discovered Johnson hosted drunken parties at 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was in lockdown.
But the scandal that is currently rocking Johnson’s government is far more serious. Johnson’s deputy chief whip Chris Pincher was forced to resign last week after allegations that he groped two women at a party. Pincher resigned, sheepishly telling Johnson that he had too much to drink, but he didn’t admit to wrongdoing.
What happened next falls into the category of “the cover-up is always worse than the crime.”
What landed Johnson in deeper trouble, though, were the contortions that Downing Street press officers went into trying to explain why Pincher was ever in government in the first place, amid a wave of revelations of his previous conduct. On Tuesday, a senior former civil servant published a letter effectively accusing Downing Street of not telling the truth when it said the Prime Minister was not aware of at least one of the historical allegations.
In an effort to draw a line under the swirling controversy, Johnson issued a statement in which he apologized and said he was wrong to have reappointed Pincher to the whip’s office — which, ironically, is responsible for party discipline — earlier this year. But that was overtaken within minutes by the resignation of the two Cabinet members
In a parliamentary system, when cabinet ministers start jumping ship, everyone else heads for the exits. Johnson came clean — the “limited hang-out route,” as Nixon aides might have said — and admitted he had known of an instance of bad behavior by Pincher.
When it became clear this would not hold, Johnson’s team said he had known about the historical allegations, but that they had been “resolved.” When it emerged that one of the previously unreported allegations against Pincher had been upheld, Johnson’s spokesperson explained that “resolved” could mean that it had been upheld.
Then on Tuesday morning, Simon McDonald, the former top civil servant at the Foreign Office revealed that Johnson had been briefed in person about the outcome of an investigation into Pincher’s conduct.
Regardless of any justification Downing Street has attempted to provide, Johnson’s judgment — and his handling of this latest crisis — is now in serious doubt.
Naturally, Conservative politicians are nervous and would love to jettison Johnson. But Johnson survived a “no-confidence” vote in June, and parliamentary rules say that he’s immune from another challenge for 12 months — unless the Conservatives change the rules. With that possibility, Johnson may decide to avoid the humiliation and resign.
More ministers will almost certainly resign, adding to the anti-Boris momentum. But Johnson has survived other challenges and scandals. He’s not likely to give up easily.