World

Boris Johnson, Floundering

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a statement at Downing Street after winning the general election in London, England, December 13, 2019. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
As the prime minister’s popularity plummets, his enemies begin their ascent.

Boris Johnson has introduced a four-week national lockdown, suggesting that “there is no alternative” and that failing to act would result in a “medical and moral disaster.” Though the entire British public does not agree with that assessment, many do. Britain has now surpassed 1 million cases of COVID-19, and finds itself in much the same situation as other European countries that have recently clamped down. If no action is taken, the worry is that the peak of infections and deaths could surpass the first wave. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with a national lockdown, Johnson’s policy is strikingly inconsistent. Less than two weeks ago the prime minister insisted that regional (not national) restrictions were the way to go. He even went as far to mock his rival, leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, for suggesting the country close down again, calling him “Captain Hindsight.”

Judging from the prime minister’s redirection, however, Captain Hindsight is looking more and more like “Captain Proved-Right.” Starmer has said that the government’s delay in implementing a second lockdown will have caused both unnecessary economic damage and loss of life. Starmer’s consistency on coronavirus strategy may help explain why Labour has, for the first time in Johnson’s premiership, overtaken the Conservatives by a five-point lead according to an Ipsos MORI survey. Starmer has suspended the former leader Jeremy Corbyn from the party on the grounds of anti-Semitism, positioning himself to set about penning a new chapter in Labour’s life. Whereas in July, 32 percent of Brits thought Johnson was governing well, and 31 percent thought he was doing badly, recent figures show that as many as 59 percent of voters think the prime minister is falling short.

North of the border, Johnson faces an even graver threat, where it seems that his unpopularity might be about to unravel the union. A recent survey by JL Partners shows a twelve-point lead for independence in Scotland, finding that “almost four in five swing voters in Scotland agreed with the statement: ‘Boris Johnson is not the leader I want to have for my country.’” According to analysis by Bloomberg: “The last nine consecutive opinion polls show the backing for leave as high as 58 percent and averaging at 53 percent.” This sentiment is likely only to be exacerbated in Scotland’s next local elections in May 2021, where pollsters are already predicting a Scottish National Party landslide. Should this happen, the existence of a mandate for a second independence referendum will be hard to refute, and more a matter of when than if.

When Theresa May was prime minister, many conservatives preferred Johnson. The two appeared to be opposites. In breaking the Brexit deadlock, he promised to be optimistic, bold, and decisive. The country agreed with this assessment, delivering a Conservative landslide in the last general election. But his luck appears to have run out. From his invocation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” to his infamous “rule of six” coronavirus micromanagement, Johnson is a shadow of his former rambunctiously libertarian self and, worse, scarcely recognizable to the man voters elected. Last year, Brexit was the all-consuming drama, and he the hero, but now it is little more than a tedious sideshow. Even Nigel Farage has suggested changing the name of the Brexit Party to Reform UK, with a new top priority: Fighting the Tory government’s coronavirus policy.

The loss of faith in Johnson is happening as much within the party as outside of it. Among Tory MPs, Johnson is facing a potential mutiny. Old-school libertarians such as Sir Graham Brady, a senior conservative MP, complained that the lockdown would be “immensely damaging to people’s livelihoods,” “deeply depressing,” and terrible for “people’s mental health and family relationships.” It would appear that prime minister’s consistency crisis is causing a confidence crisis. His enemies have spotted an opening.