Conservative rebellion threatens Boris Johnson as Prime Minister

December 20, 2021 09:19
UK Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss (left) and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (right) are considered possible Boris Johnson successors. Photo: Reuters

A rebellion by members of his own Conservative Party threatens the career of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in office since July 2019. They are angry about his mis-management of the Covid pandemic, corruption and social gatherings in his office during a strict lockdown.

Last Tuesday 99 Tory Members of Parliament voted against a government measure to curb the increasing spread of the Omicron virus which is devastating Britain. It was the biggest rebellion during Johnson’s term in office. Just one hour before the vote, Johnson in person pleaded with the MPs to side with him.

Last Friday he suffered another crushing blow when his party lost a Parliament by-election in the rural area of North Shropshire, a seat which the Conservatives had held for almost 200 years. The winner was the opposition Liberal Democratic candidate, who won by a margin of nearly 6,000 votes over the Tory. In the general election in December 2019, the Conservatives won the seat by a margin of 23,000 votes.

At the weekend, his Minister for Brexit, Lord David Frost, resigned.

“If Johnson still looks like a winner, we will back him,” said one Tory MP. “If he does not, the end for him will be swift and brutal.”

In her victory speech in North Shropshire, the winner, Helen Morgan said that Conservative voters had been “dismayed by Boris Johnson’s lack of decency and fed up with being taken for granted. Our country is crying out for leadership, Mr Johnson, you are no leader.”

The vote reflected widespread public anger against Johnson on several issues. One is mismanagement of the Covid pandemic. In Britain, more than 147,000 people have died from the disease and 11.19 million have contracted it, both the highest figures in Europe.

The second are leaked pictures and videos that show staff in 10 Downing Street, his office, enjoying parties and a quiz during Christmas 2020, at a time when the government had ordered a national lockdown. It prevented the traditional family gatherings of the festive season.

The third is how he paid for a redecoration of his personal apartment above 11 Downing Street costing tens of thousands of pounds. Did he receive money from political donors which he did not declare?

In an editorial on Saturday, the Financial Times said: “the real tipping point was the string of revelations about Downing Street parties held during lockdown last Christmas and the prime minister’s obfuscation. Johnson might have drawn much of the sting had he been straight, and contrite, with MPs and voters from the moment the first story surfaced.

“He must demonstrate the serious, clear and decisive stewardship Britain needs at a delicate moment,” it said.

In addition to the pandemic, Johnson faces challenges in the economy. Last Thursday the Bank of England raised interest rates to 0.25 per cent from 0.1 per cent, the first increase since the start of the pandemic.

In November, the Consumer Price Index rose by an annual 5.1 per cent, from 4.2 per cent in October. The Bank of England expects inflation to remain at an annual five per cent through the winter, reaching six per cent in April 2022. In April, the government will raise taxes to their highest level since 1950, with corporation tax rates increasing from 19 per cent to 25 per cent.

Brexit has proved to be a serious economic mistake. The Independent Office for Budget Responsibility said that total UK imports and exports will eventually be 15 per cent lower than if the country had stayed within the European Union. It estimates a loss of four per cent of national income over the medium term.

There are two likely successors. One is Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; he is favoured among some bookmakers. The son of British Indian parents who emigrated from East Africa, he was educated at Winchester College and Oxford and Stanford Universities.

After graduating, he worked for Goldman Sachs and two hedge funds. Suave and well-spoken, he is popular with the business community.

The other is Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss, a member of Parliament since 2010. She has held cabinet positions under three Conservative Prime Ministers. She is popular with the Thatcherite wing of the party.

In November, during a visit to Estonia, she wore body armour and a helmet and posed for photographs in a tank – a similar image to Margaret Thatcher on a British tank in 1986. The Russian media called Truss “the new Iron Lady”.

Johnson is under no immediate threat of dismissal by his fellow Conservative Members of Parliament. They have returned to their constituencies over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

But, after the festivities and the hangovers, Johnson will be fighting for his political life.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.