Analysis: How Boris Johnson Became Politically Vulnerable

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When Boris Johnson won a landslide victory with his Conservative Party in the 2019 election, he became a colossus in British politics, the man who redrawn the country’s political map with a promise to “get Brexit done”.

With an 80-seat majority in parliament, the largest by a Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher in 1987, Boris appeared to have secured his five years in power. Some analysts were predicting a comfortable decade at 10 Downing Street for him, the staunchest vote-winner in British politics.

Now, just two and a half years after that triumph, the prime minister’s political invincibility has been shattered. His party rebels failed to topple him in a dramatic no-confidence vote on Monday. But with 148 of 359 Conservative lawmakers voting against it, he may have had his image as an effective and reliable leader damaged, perhaps irreversibly. Although he remains prime minister, Boris could be living an unanticipated extension. It is one of the most impressive twists of fate in modern British political history. What happened?

To some extent, Boris Johnson’s position crumbled due to the confusing mix of strengths and weaknesses that also fueled his rise: rare political intuition offset by unbelievable personal recklessness; a sense of history unaccompanied by a corresponding sense of how he should behave as a leader; surprising personal skills marred by a transactional style that has given him few allies and left him isolated in dangerous moments.

It is this latter quality, analysts say, that has made Boris so vulnerable to setbacks. With no underlying ideology other than Brexit and no network of political friends, the prime minister lost the support of his party lawmakers when it became clear they could not count on him to win the next election.

“Johnson is such a gifted illusionist, and his colleagues so cowardly, that you can’t rule out his living to fight another day,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London. “But for what exactly? There’s no explanation.”

Boris, after all, is the politician who decided to support Brexit after writing two columns – one advocating leaving the European Union; another arguing against – the night before his position announcement. He won in 2019 promising to “get Brexit done” but, having achieved that goal just months after the election, he often looked like a prime minister without a plan.

Events also played a role, as another British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, once said. Like other world leaders, Boris has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, his government beset by an ongoing health crisis, in which he played a highly visible but not always reassuring role.

Boris was slow to react to the looming threat of the virus, imposing a lockdown on the country a week later than neighboring countries. That delay, critics argued, made the first wave of the pandemic worse in Britain than elsewhere. In April 2020, with the virus circulating in Downing Street, Boris himself contracted Covid-19, ended up in an ICU and nearly died.

But the prime minister also pushed for Britain to pioneer the development of a vaccine. When Oxford University and AstraZeneca produced one, he launched it faster than almost any other country. He also made the fateful decision — later imitated by other leaders — to reopen society after a significant percentage of the population had been vaccinated. Britons must learn to live with Covid, he said.

It was during the darkest days of the pandemic that the seeds of Boris’ current problems were sown. As the rest of the UK faced stifling lockdowns, the prime minister and his top aides attended social gatherings in Downing Street that violated their own restrictions.

The first reports of illicit parties emerged late last November, prompting Boris to issue a general denial that the law had been broken. A later police investigation found this to be untrue: the prime minister was fined for attending his own birthday party, breaking the rules.

The prime minister’s allies argue that the “partygate”, as the London tabloids have dubbed the affair, is a trivial distraction at a time when Europe faces its first major war since World War II. The premier quickly assumed the role of Ukraine’s defender, sending weapons to his army and making regular calls to his new friend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

At first, the war overshadowed the scandal, giving Boris the chance to drape himself in the mantle of a statesman. But as the struggle continued, disenchantment resurfaced in the country.

London’s Metropolitan Police levied fines, and an internal investigation by a top civil servant painted a grim portrait of parties at the heart of government. The stain of moral hypocrisy has eroded the prime minister’s popularity with the public. On Friday, when he and his wife, Carrie Johnson, climbed the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign, he was booed by the crowd. It was an omen.

Furthermore, economic winds began to blow against Boris. The pandemic’s supply chain disruptions – combined with food and fuel price shocks following the invasion of Ukraine – have driven double-digit inflation and raised the specter of “stagflation”.

The last time Britain faced this, the Labor government fell, in a crushing defeat to Thatcher’s Conservatives. The prospect of history repeating itself helps explain why lawmakers are turning against Boris. “All we can say with any level of certainty is that ordinary Brits are going to find it difficult to carry on economically for the rest of this year – and probably the next,” said Bale. “That spells trouble for the Conservatives, with or without Johnson.”

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