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Boris Johnson’s Comeback Hopes May Be Dimmer Than He Thinks

It is tempting to view Boris Johnson’s sudden resignation from Britain’s Parliament on Friday evening as merely another twist in a serpentine career, a tactical retreat rather than a political epitaph.

After all, the language in his 1,035-word statement was defiant and aggrieved, peppered with reminders of the thumping electoral victory that he had delivered for the Conservative Party less than four years ago and pregnant with the possibility that he could do so again in the future.

As he has on so many other occasions, Mr. Johnson seemed to be channeling his political hero, Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime leader who was swept out of power in 1945 only to return to Downing Street in triumph six years later.

Yet this time, political analysts expressed skepticism about a Churchillian restoration for Mr. Johnson. With little support beyond a rump of hard-core Brexiteers in Parliament, and a British public that has grown weary of the Boris soap opera, they said there was almost no plausible path back to power for him.

“There is nowhere near the support out there in the country for Boris Johnson as there is for, say, Donald Trump in the States,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “The number of voters out there who will support him, come what may, is far, far smaller.”

Moreover, Mr. Bale said, Britain’s parliamentary system makes any Trump-style resurgence far more difficult. Among other things, the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and the Conservative Party leadership have a say over whether Mr. Johnson can run for another seat in the House of Commons.

“In the end,” Mr. Bale said, “no politician is bigger than their party, and the overwhelming majority of Tory M.P.s would like to see the back of Boris Johnson,” using shorthand for members of Parliament.

That does not mean he and other experts are writing off Mr. Johnson’s chances altogether.

Mr. Johnson, 58, has bounced back from enough defeats and setbacks that it would be foolhardy to assume that he has no future. The outlines of a comeback plan were clear in his scorched-earth resignation statement.

He was scathing about Mr. Sunak, an ally turned rival whose resignation as chancellor of the Exchequer last summer set in motion Mr. Johnson’s fall from power. Mr. Sunak, he said, had abandoned the ambitious goals set by the Johnson government, not least a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the United States.

“When I left office last year, the government was only a handful of points behind in the polls. That gap has now massively widened,” Mr. Johnson said. “Just a few years after winning the biggest majority in almost half a century, that majority is now clearly at risk.”

“Our party needs urgently to recapture its sense of momentum and its belief in what this country can do,” he concluded.

With the opposition Labour Party holding a steady double-digit lead in the polls over the Conservatives, Mr. Sunak faces an uphill battle in the next election, which he must call by January 2025.

Though he has won credit for steadying the ship of state — not least the damage done to the British economy by the tax-cutting policies of Liz Truss, whose 44-day tenure as prime minister preceded his own — Mr. Sunak has been dogged by stubborn inflation and the specter of a recession. After nearly 14 years in power, the Tories often appear to be a party that is out of ideas.

It is not at all clear that the party would stick with Mr. Sunak as leader if it were defeated in the next general election. Mr. Johnson’s strategy, Mr. Bale said, would probably be to try to secure another seat in Parliament either before or shortly after that election — and then persuade his vanquished party to turn to him as a savior.

The problem with this plan, analysts said, is that British voters appear to be genuinely fed up with Mr. Johnson’s rule-breaking ways. While he retains the affection of some rank-and-file Tories, the broader electorate has turned on him since a string of scandals — including lockdown-breaking parties during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and his defense of a predatory Tory lawmakerforced him out of office.

A mere 5 percent of voters from the Labour or Liberal Democratic Parties would favor Mr. Johnson’s return to Downing Street, according to a recent poll by the market research firm Savanta. Those numbers are particularly damaging to him because Mr. Johnson built his party’s victory in 2019 by attracting disenchanted Labour voters from Britain’s Midlands and industrial north.

In the short run, Mr. Johnson faced the prospect of losing his own seat after the release of a damning report by a House of Commons committee about whether he had lied to his colleagues about attending social gatherings during the pandemic.

The committee, which handed a confidential copy of its findings to Mr. Johnson last week, plans to release the report publicly on Monday. Among its expected recommendations is a suspension of Mr. Johnson from Parliament for at least 10 days, which could have triggered a by-election in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. That election will now be held without Mr. Johnson.

He could still try to run for a seat in a more friendly constituency, like that of Nadine Dorries, a loyalist who announced, just hours before Mr. Johnson’s resignation on Friday, that she would not compete in the next election. There is also an open seat in Henley, which he represented once before.

But Mr. Sunak and the Conservative leadership would need to approve Mr. Johnson’s candidacy. Analysts said it was hard to see them doing that, given the headaches he has caused the government.

For weeks, Mr. Johnson has been a burr under the saddle. He feuded with the Cabinet Office over demands that he turn over his diaries and WhatsApp text messages to the official Covid-19 Inquiry, pre-emptively offering to hand over the material in unredacted form, even as the government resisted. The drama distracted attention from Mr. Sunak’s agenda and seemed calculated to embarrass the prime minister.

Given all of that, Mr. Johnson’s Friday-night exit could be seen as a way for him to shape the narrative before the report from Parliament’s Privileges Committee comes out. He lashed out at the panel, saying that it had “not produced a shred of evidence that I knowingly or recklessly misled the Commons.”

“Their purpose from the beginning has been to find me guilty, regardless of the facts,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “This is the very definition of a kangaroo court.”

In its bitterness and sense of grievance, Mr. Johnson’s response drew parallels to that of former President Donald J. Trump, a politician to whom he is often compared, and who is now facing the repercussions of his own scandals. It was not lost on political commentators in London that Mr. Johnson’s exit from Parliament came less than 24 hours after federal prosecutors in Washington indicted Mr. Trump on charges of obstructing justice in his handling of classified documents.

But the parallel, analysts say, has its limits. Though Mr. Trump’s legal problems are arguably far greater than Mr. Johnson’s, he remains the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Johnson, for all the headlines that he commands, has no comparable base of political support.

“Boris Johnson and Donald Trump both have this psychological need to soak up all the oxygen in the room,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The problem for Boris Johnson is that he’s not getting the same resonance as Trump is with voters.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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