By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
As England enters into its second coronavirus national lockdown on Thursday, a political crisis could be brewing for Boris Johnson just a year after his landslide election victory in December.
The latest country-wide lockdown, which Johnson insisted as late as last month would not happen, is a body blow for his political authority. So much so that there is some doubt in Westminster as to whether the prime minister is up to the job and can survive in office until the next election.
Johnson and his ministers are increasingly being held to account in Westminster not just by a rejuvenated opposition Labour Party under Keir Starmer’s new leadership, but also by MPs across the political spectrum.
The Cabinet is under pressure from legislators, including some Conservative MPs, who are opposed to the second lockdown and want to see the government move faster to rejuvenate the economy.
To be sure, the decisions that Johnson has had to make during the coronavirus crisis have been very hard, and any alternative leader would have made mistakes. Yet his approach to tackling the crisis has too often been chaotic, reflecting the fact that his skill set (“big picture” and not details-focused) and style (flamboyant and colorful) is less suited to the demands of the pandemic era than to normal times.
Last weekend was a case study of this sloppiness in action. After news started leaking out in the media on Friday night of the impending second lockdown, Johnson was forced to convene a hastily arranged press conference on Saturday that was repeatedly delayed during the day to announce the huge policy U-turn.
The way that the announcement was handled was widely criticized, not just by politicians. A key police body even indicated that public order was undermined by the media speculation that built up after the leak first surfaced.
While Johnson has long had critics among the ruling Conservatives, there is growing disquiet within the party about whether he can last the course. When he scored his huge election win last December, it was widely expected at the time that he could remain in office for much of the 2020s, yet the rollercoaster ride that his premiership is proving means his term could yet end far sooner.
This is not just because of Johnson’s stumbling political performance during the pandemic. In addition there are problems arising from his extraordinary, gambling-style approach to governing the nation.
One of the biggest gambles Johnson is taking right now is the risk of no UK-EU trade deal at the same time as the second wave of the virus is sweeping the nation. The economic shock of a failure to conclude such a Brexit agreement with Brussels would compound the challenges that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are already facing after the pandemic.
Some of Johnson’s gambles have certainly paid off for him, especially in 2019. He took a major risk, for instance, in pushing for a pre-Christmas election, the first December ballot for a century, at a time of extraordinary political volatility. Had the opposition parties not made a series of blunders, Johnson would have faced a far tougher campaign and the result would have been closer.
Since the turn of 2020, however, the prime minister’s “high wire” approach to governance has generally backfired. And a few weeks ago the Labour Party led by Starmer — who some opinion surveys indicate is the most popular opposition leader since Tony Blair in 1994-1997, just before he entered Downing Street — overtook the Tories in the opinion polls for the first time in well over a year.
So Johnson could now be heading into a political quagmire, and what could yet make it worse still is the end game of the EU-UK trade negotiations. Irresponsibly, Johnson has said that the UK must leave the transition period from its EU membership in December — come what may.
This decision is not in the national interest — it is more to ensure he can be perceived to have delivered on his 2019 pledge to “get Brexit done.” So politically charged is this issue for the prime minister that he is, now, widely believed to be willing to leave the transition at the end of the year, even if no trade deal is agreed with Brussels and the EU-27, with the further economic damage this could bring.
The combination of a disorderly Brexit and a continued coronavirus crisis may bring an ignominious end to Johnson’s political career. Despite his hold on power seeming unassailable a year ago, his premature departure from office in these circumstances is a growing possibility, potentially even as soon as 2021.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.