The response from his Conservative colleagues says it all. The leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Douglas Ross, called on Johnson to resign, as have two-thirds of the Scottish Parliament’s Tory contingent. Three Westminster Conservative MPs have joined that call, and the response from Johnson’s ministers has been tepid at best.
Conservative radio personality Iain Dale tweeted on Wednesday that no minister had publicly defended Johnson three hours after questions ended, leading many to tweet that he had apologized and that further judgment must await a report to come from Sue Gray, the leading civil servant investigating the matter. Johnson’s No. 2, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, wasn’t even at question time and waited until 8 p.m. to issue a short, unenthusiastic tweet in support.
But Johnson may yet hang on for a while, since the party is itself adrift. There is no clear successor, as both Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss have their backers. More ominously, neither potential replacement has offered the faintest clue of how they can unite the historic coalition Johnson formed to win his massive majority in the 2019 elections.
Johnson led the Conservatives to victory by smashing the “Red Wall” of working-class seats that had been the Labour Party’s heartland for decades. These voters united with traditional Tories in the south of England in support of Brexit, but that has now been delivered. The Conservative future depends on finding other issues to unite the disparate branches. So far, Johnson and his party have fallen well short.
Sunak, for example, pushed through an increase in the national insurance contribution — Britain’s equivalent to the Social Security and Medicare tax — last year. That tax will limit the financial exposure of seniors to nursing home or in-home caregiving costs, but it will fall on every Briton’s paycheck. That’s precisely the opposite of what a party trying to cement the loyalty of former Labour voters should be doing.
The Conservatives, then, are committing the same error that Swedish conservative Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt made last decade. His party, the Moderates, recast themselves as “Sweden’s workers’ party” under his leadership and won two consecutive elections by garnering crossover votes from former Social Democratic strongholds. But when mass immigration surged in the early 2010s, Reinfeldt strongly backed looser border policies. Those former Social Democratic voters switched sides, turning to a new anti-immigrant populist party, the Sweden Democrats. The Moderates now can only regain power in elections this fall if they cooperate with the populists, who run nearly even with them in the polls.
Britain has seen this play before. In mid-2019, when it appeared the Conservatives could not deliver on Brexit, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party rose dramatically in polls. It won that year’s British elections for the European Union and surged into the lead in national polls for British Parliament. It was only then, facing an existential crisis, that then-Prime Minister Theresa May resigned and Johnson — a prominent figure in the pro-Brexit campaign — won the leadership.
Farage is still in the public eye, hosting a popular television program on Britain’s version of Fox News, GB News. His old party, now renamed Reform, has slowly risen to 4 percent in the polls and could easily skyrocket again if the Tories falter.
The alternative — sticking with a wounded leader for the remainder of his term — is not attractive either. The Tories chose that course in the 1990s, when economic mismanagement and a torrent of scandals hit Prime Minister John Major. Conservatives stuck with him only to be crushed by Tony Blair in 1997. It took them three failed leaders and 13 years to regain power.
Thus, the odds are against Johnson remaining PM until his term expires. And if the Tories don’t understand the full depth of their predicament, the odds of them retaining power after the next election are even worse.