Just shy of six months since his successful election, Boris Johnson should be riding high, yet his position as Prime Minister seems oddly precarious. After fighting off a nasty bout of coronavirus his leadership has stalled amidst crises surrounding political failings and personal mishaps surrounding the pandemic. Once he gets past the immediate devastation, Johnson will stumble into a series of debates about the Union, Brexit and ultimately his leadership.
While all nations have suffered under the coronavirus pandemic, initial data suggests that excess deaths in the United Kingdom are higher than elsewhere in the world. This is largely due to a failure to protect care homes from becoming infected, indeed the age profile of the virus means almost half of Covid-19 deaths have occurred in the over 85s. Despite this, when scientific advice suggested the NHS’s capacity was to be breached, the government opted to send ill patients back to care homes. In similarly incompetent fashion, when care homes pleaded for more PPE provision, Health Secretary Matt Hancock launched a new badge. While careful analysis may couch criticisms of the government with recognition of faulty scientific advice and disrupted supply lines, the public opinion may not be so generous: net approval of the handling of the crisis has recently slipped into the negative. To add onto the policy failings, Dominic Cummings’s nonchalant attitude towards lockdown only adds fuel to the attacks of negligence at the government. Politically, Downing Street does not have much room to blame others: any attempt to blame experts will not cut through due to the rightful reputation of Johnson as being anti-expert. Rumours swirl that Matt Hancock will be sent to the backbenchers, this seems politically dangerous, for he is a bright minister who would join a longlist of MPs victimised by the Tory government. Johnson appears boxed into the corner with no-one left to blame, it appears he may need to take this public criticism on the chin.
Like a punch-drunk boxer Johnson may stumble away from the coronavirus crisis just to be attacked by a number of secondary factors. Most dangerously, the SNP are marching towards the Scottish Elections next year eyeing up a majority mandate for IndyRef 2. Despite Nicola Sturgeon responding to coronavirus in a similar fashion to Johnson, replicating the failings of a late lockdown and a neglect of care homes, her leadership and the SNP have enjoyed the ‘rally round the flag effect’ and enjoy majority support in opinion polls. If the Nationalists secure that majority next May they’d take a credible mandate for another independence referendum to Downing Street. Johnson’s reaction to such a request has electoral implications. If he accepts the request, the Union will be under direct threat and proudly Unionist Conservative voters both sides of the border will likely be angered at Scotland having yet another ‘once in a generation’ plebiscite, only a few years after the last one. Fortunately for Johsnon, the chance of a ‘Yes’ vote is unlikely: polling has consistently reported a majority for ‘No’. However if he follows May’s lead and rejects the proposals for a secondary IndyRef then he will be painted as undemocratic and the image of Johnson as an illiberal leader in the mould of Trump or Orban will continue to grow.
Despite the pandemic, negotiations between the UK and the EU have continued however progress has been painstakingly slow. Over the last month there have been two major developments: there will be an administrative border in the Irish Sea and, secondly, the possibility of a no deal outcome has become more likely. Northern Ireland has been the major issue in Brexit negotiations due to the Good Friday Agreement. A ‘hard border’ is widely believed to breach this and undermine the peace process however if the UK wishes to separate from the customs union a hard border appeared necessary until Johnson’s last-gasp negotiations last Autumn where a resolution was found which fudged Northern Ireland into both customs unions. Ahead of the election, Johnson promised no checks within the UK but in the last week Michael Gove has conceded there will be checks of goods that have been sent to Northern Ireland from Great Britain. This quasi-border in the Irish Sea will upset Unionists who view that Johnson has further pushed away Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The issue of No Deal is a simple one: will the British public tolerate the cost of the termination of access to the Single Market after a torturous economic year? A country in recession will be extra sensitive to any further economic impact. This pincer attack on two Conservative principles, unionism and economic credibility, will hurt the government in traditional Tory heartlands such as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s seat of Esher and Walton - a previously safe seat that has turned into a Liberal Democrat target after a 18.5% swing away from the Conservatives last year.
The danger for Johnson is not simply the effect of these events but how they particularly affect his personal weaknesses. He has spent much of his premiership trying to renovate the Conservative Party into a ‘one-nation’ movement: pro-state, caring and proudly unionist. The failings exhibited in the coronavirus crisis hit hard on these concepts: they appear to have neglected the health of vulnerable older citizens, there is a palpable threat of an unravelling union and Cummings’s excursions have made a mockery of the supposed new anti-elitism in this government. These shortcomings are intensified by Johnson’s unpopularity within the upper ranks of the Conservative Party. Despite being the darling of the membership, he has alienated Tory politicians of all shades from moderate Ruth Davidson to hard-right Steve Baker. This leaves him with a very narrow coalition within the party: Downing Street is dominated by leftovers from his London mayorship and the Leave campaign, this is combined with 107 new MPs who supposedly owe personal allegiance to Johnson following their electoral success last year. Conservative MPs are notoriously ruthless when it comes to binning unpopular leaders whether that be Thatcher, Duncan-Smith or May. Johnson was called upon due to his election winning ability, if polls continue to slide he will become fearful of plotting within, the 61 MPs that called on Cummings to resign show the potential of an anti-Johnson movement within parliament. Popular former ministers Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid threaten from inside Westminster while numerous Johnson-sceptics outside parliament exist such as Evening Standard editor George Osbourne or former Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
Johnson’s political failings and personal shortcomings combine to place him in choppy waters with much of his parliamentary term left to play. He has the demanding task of managing the worst pandemic in a century, paving a smooth path out of the EU all while strengthening an ailing union. These challenges come at a time where the Prime Minister has a collapsing reputation amongst his peers, the media and the public alike. However, those who doubt Johnson will do well to remember his miraculous 2019: he stormed the leadership contest, seized control of the party, secured a Brexit deal and won a historic election. The Prime Minister will hope his winning streak continues.
Image - Flickr.