ISSN 2330-717X

Britain’s Great Survivor Escapes Again – OpEd

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By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim*

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in trouble last month because of a series of parties and gatherings in his official residence in Downing Street during the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.

Such gatherings were prohibited by law, which many ordinary people were arrested and fined for breaking, and the scandal became known as “Partygate.” The governing Conservative Party fell 10 points behind in opinion polls, and Johnson’s own favorability rating dropped to record lows. Letters of no confidence were submitted to the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, the first stage in a leadership contest. 

Johnson’s premiership has always been rocky – he had barely won the 2019 election before the pandemic upended the world economic system in early 2020 – but it has also included notable achievements for Britain.

After years of disunity and confusion over Brexit, including the perennial prospect of a second referendum, which would have risked dividing the country further and reaching a similarly close result, Johnson’s government, elected with an overwhelmingly majority in 2019, was able to break the parliamentary and diplomatic deadlock that had held things up. Britain’s exit from the EU had been stalled for almost five years,caused the resignation of two prime ministers and wasted untold amounts of parliamentary time, but Johnson’s government was able to “Get Brexit Done.”

During the pandemic there were severe failures of state in Britain, not least due to Johnson’s own initial refusal to accept the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak, and especially in the first months of mass spread and lockdown. But these failures were not permanent. Britain was the first country to approve a vaccine of any kind, and the first country to administer it.

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Since then it has mounted one of the fastest and widest vaccination campaigns in the world, with over 100 million doses administered, resulting in over 90 per cent of the eligible population having had at least one dose.

In national security terms, Johnson’s government has produced the Integrated Review, a significant piece of grand strategic thinking unlike any produced in Britain for decades.

Johnson’s premiership has also included the creation of the AUKUS agreement with the US and Australia, which has given Britain a significant voice and role in the security of the Indo-Pacific. Under Johnson, Britain mounted the COP26 summit, which even in a time of increased political, economic and environmental nationalism worldwide concluded with global promises to reduce emissions further than had been scheduled in Paris in 2015.

But these achievements are not enough to fend off Johnson’s critics. His premiership still faces an uncertain future if the police decide a sitting prime minister should be fined for breaking lockdown rules. Even some parliamentary members of his own party believe it would be untenable for a prime minister to remain in office if he had broken the law in such a blatant fashion, resulting in a legal penalty.

But the scandal of Partygate is now being buried with Johnson’s decisive leadership in the face of the Ukraine crisis. Just as Margaret Thatcher enjoyed a significant boost to her ratings with the Falklands war, Johnson is reaping the benefits of showing strong leadership with the catastrophe unfolding in Europe.

As Russian troops poured over the Ukrainian border, national unity emerged in the UK, and even the opposition Labour Party stopped opposing and stood squarely behind the prime minister. Even his critics acknowledged that Johnson was ahead of the curve in ensuring sufficient defensive arms were flowing to theUkrainian government when other nations in Europe were obfuscating. Johnson was one of the loudest voices pushing for Russia to be expelled from the SWIFT bank messaging system, against opponents in Germany who feared economic blowback — a position Germany eventually reversed. Johnson is now riding a wave of popularity and most critics accept that no matter the outcome of Partygate the prime minister’s position is safe.

It seems that Johnson, the great survivor, has once again defied his critics.

*Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the Director of Special Initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C. and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim

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