The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the party really over for Boris Johnson?

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When Boris Johnson was a child, he once said he wanted to be king of the world. Of course, that makes no sense, so he had to settle for British prime minister. And if ongoing scandals pan out as his many critics now believe, it won’t be a lifelong appointment but closer to just three years.

Johnson faced one of his toughest grillings yet at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions in Britain’s Parliament, apologizing and trying to explain away criticism of his recent behavior. As The Post’s William Booth and Karla Adam report from London, he did so “amid shouts from the opposition that he is a liar and should resign.” Keir Starmer, Johnson’s chief rival and leader of the Labour Party, asked “is he finally going to do the decent thing and resign?”

What’s worrying this time for the prime minister is that calls for him to step down aren’t confined to his opponents. Some Conservative lawmakers are openly voicing their disgust, while Douglas Ross, the party’s leader in Scotland, said Wednesday it was time for him to give up his post. “I don’t want to be in this position, but I am in the position now where I don’t think he can continue as the leader of the Conservatives,” Ross said in an interview with British broadcast outlets.

It isn’t certain that Johnson’s days in 10 Downing Street are over, of course. Once known better for his colorful private life and self-deprecating talk show appearances, Johnson consistently found himself underestimated throughout his political career. He has wriggled his way from being a rule-breaking journalist to a conservative mayor of London’s liberal metropolis, to a Brexit-supporting prime minister that won in a historic landslide in December 2019.

“Boris Johnson knows exactly what he’s doing,” went the headline of one Atlantic article published just half a year ago.

But the current situation raises the question: Does he actually? In the final months of 2021, having struggled to get Britain through a pandemic that saw missteps that cost thousands of lives, Johnson now finds himself engulfed in scandal after scandal. There was the colleague forced to step down for “sleaze,” a donor-funded renovation of the prime minister’s residence, allegations that he authorized government assistance for an airlift of nearly 200 dogs and cats from Afghanistan.

The biggest issue seems to be the parties, however — ironic for a leader known for his joie de vivre. This week, a leaked email gave details of Johnson’s attendance at a bring-your-own-booze garden party hosted at 10 Downing Street on May 20, 2020. It is at least the third time — though some outlets report a higher figure — the British government reportedly broke its own strict social distancing rules.

As many in Britain have suffered greatly through the pandemic, government parties have become a lightning rod for outrage. At the time of the May 20 party, Britons were only allowed to meet one person from outside their household — and even then had to do so in a public place and with restrictions.

On the same day that Johnson attended the garden party, others were kept apart from their loved ones. For some, the missed moments were tragic. That same evening, Donna Speed found her mother dead and alone in her home, she told my colleague Jennifer Hassan this week in a tearful interview. “She hadn’t answered our calls,” Speed told The Post. “I expected her to be asleep.”

Last month, Johnson deflected blame for the parties, with one adviser who joked about a different Christmas party at 10 Downing Street resigning instead. Even now he’s ducking and weaving, telling Parliament on Wednesday that he had only attended the May 20 garden gathering “for 25 minutes” to thank the staff. “I believed implicitly that this was a work event,” he said.

The verdict from much of the British public — and a number of Conservative backbenchers — is that is not on. And crucially, Johnson faced withering criticism from some of his keenest supporters in Britain’s right-leaning press. Even the Telegraph — the British newspaper that not only long employed Johnson but also speaks for much of his target audience — has turned up the heat.

Johnson now faces shots from all sides. Sue Gray, a British civil servant, is investigating the parties at 10 Downing Street. If Johnson is found to have lied in Parliament about breaking the rules, it may be a breach of Britain’s ministerial code — a sackable offense. Pressed by Starmer on Wednesday about if he would resign if he was found to have breached the code, Johnson said he would “certainly respond as appropriate.”

Even if he survives that, Britain holds local elections in May. Though Johnson’s charisma has long led him to sail past scandal to electoral victories, the Conservatives lost a significant election for a once-safe seat in December. National polls show confidence in Johnson has declined sharply since last summer and the Labour Party is several points ahead of the Conservatives in voting intention surveys.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for the Eurasia Group in Europe and a careful observer of British politics, wrote on Twitter that he suspected Johnson could be pushed after those elections. “Johnson is battered beyond repair, but better he takes flak over” economic concerns and local election results, Rahman added. According to YouGov polling, almost half of Conservative Party members think that Chancellor Rishi Sunak would be a better leader than Johnson — a key point ahead of 2024′s general election.

This all makes good sense, of course. But so far, very little in Johnson’s political career has been bound by good sense — and even now it may be too early to count him out.

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