down but not out – POLITICO
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WEM, Shropshire, England — Boris Johnson has had his proportion of troubles, but it’s hard to ingemination tougher time than this.
An investigation into claims of a Christmas party in Downing Street at the height of last year’s lockdown is expected to report in the next few days. The U.K. faces the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, with pressure building on already-strained NHS sets.
Johnson’s Conservative MPs are preparing to rebel en masse over new public health restrictions which include vaccine certification for some hospitality venues. And on Thursday the Conservatives confront an uphill battle to hang on to the before safe seat of North Shropshire, in a by-election prompted by an avoidable scandal over lobbying by one of Johnson’s MPs.
Against this backdrop, Westminster watchers and the voting public are asking whether this could be the beginning of the end for British politics’ great survivor.
Johnson must deal with two immediate and painful headaches this week. The first is Tuesday’s vote on the government’s so-called “Plan B” to fight the latest wave of COVID infections. And the second comes two days later with the unplanned election in a seat Tories would historically have expected to win.
already were he to mishandle both, few Tory insiders think their party would topple the chief minister closest. Nonetheless, with surveys slipping and scandals mounting, this could in addition look like the week the shine came off the Johnson circus.
By the numbers
The Spectator’s rolling tally of declared Conservative rebels puts the number at more than 70 — leaving the Conservatives’ 79-strong majority in tatters. The total may be already higher as some MPs have not broadcast their intentions. Broadly speaking, opponents of the new measures coalesce around the argument that vaccine passports are ineffective and an intrusion on civil liberties.
The regulations had been expected to pass, because the opposition Labour Party will not oppose them, but the expected extent of the insurrection could in addition see the government defeated. in spite of of the outcome, this does not bode well for Johnson.
“It’s about trust, and it’s broken at the moment,” said one former aide to Johnson. “These MPs are basically making bets about what the future will bring, and so the fact that it is at this level is basically a way of showing their numbers and their willingness to go head-to-head with him.”
In some hotly contested Commons votes, party whips are able to thin out the ranks of would-be rebels by offering concessions or rewards, but in this scenario it’s not clear what those might be.
‘Taken for granted’
Thursday’s test could be tougher nevertheless. What ought to be a slam-dunk of a by-election for the Tories, sitting on a 22,949 majority in a seat they’ve held since its inception, has turned into a knife-edge contest in the wake of sleaze revelations and Downing Street scandal.
In the rural seat of North Shropshire, there are signs of once-substantial Conservative sustain ebbing away.
A woman in her 70s, leaving the lone cafe in the tiny market town of Wem, says the area is “ready for a change” and has been “taken for granted for too long.” She is considering voting Liberal Democrat for the first time.
The Lib Dems have high hopes for this week’s poll, targeting farms and villages in addition as the market towns with a campaign focused on local concern about cuts to ambulance sets and unhappiness at the agricultural payment scheme developed after Brexit.
Their candidate, Helen Morgan, has the advantage of being a local, although she’s faced scrutiny over past comments on social media. The left-leaning Guardian newspaper published an editorial imploring Labour supporters to vote tactically for the Lib Dems, and bookmakers have made them the favorite to win.
Labour’s candidate, Ben Wood, is upbeat nonetheless. His strategy has concentrated on the constituency’s larger towns and the erosion of public sets over the past ten years, an issue on which he thinks Labour is the only credible challenger.
Although some Conservative voters here let in to being fed up with Johnson — “crass” is the information that surfaces most often, the day after a video of No. 10 staff joking about a Christmas party that’s been repeatedly denied is published — the instinct to vote blue runs thorough in this part of the country.
One group of friends in their 60s, gathered in Wem town hall, are almost defensive of the incident. They say there “are more important things to worry about” with the improvement of Omicron. One asks: “Who didn’t open a bottle of wine if they were stuck in the office last winter?”
They also say the fact that Tory candidate Neil Shastri-Hurst — an army medic-turned-barrister — hails from Birmingham is “irrelevant” and argue that the other campaigns’ attempt to make hay with this is “verging on racist.”
All three of the main parties worry that a large proportion of Tories may stay home on a wintry polling day, declining to back Johnson — but not switching to another party either. That makes this a particularly tough race to call.
Conservative Party insiders see Thursday’s vote as pivotal to Johnson’s future. One ex-minister said the premiership is Johnson’s “for as long as there is no different” but warned: “If we lose North Shropshire and a stalking horse [leadership challenger] emerges that may shake the kaleidoscope.”
For many Tory MPs, the relationship with Johnson is akin to a marriage of convenience. David Gauke, who served in the government of Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, said: “The case against removing him is that he has got an allurement to parts of the electorate that will be very hard to replicate. To the extent that Conservative MPs keep up off, it’s more because they continue to believe that he is ultimately a vote winner.”
If it starts to look like Johnson is losing his allurement, Gauke said, Johnson lacks “a strong ideological base within the party or a close course of action of personal supporters” to rally around him — leaving him unprotected.
‘Emperor’s new clothes’
MPs on all sides of the Conservative Party confirmed discussions over Johnson’s position are now taking place. One member who was elected on the back of Johnson’s 2019 general election triumph said: “It’s pretty grim. He needs to get a grip of the operation, and fast. If there were a decent challenger, I think things might have moved on already faster.”
One May-era minister put it more acidly: “More and more people are seeing by the emperor’s new clothes, and once you’ve seen that you can’t un-see it.”
It is, however, much too soon to write Johnson off. A win in North Shropshire could silence the internal critics, at the minimum for now, while the Christmas break may take the heat out of the various crises Johnson is currently fighting.
Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt told POLITICO the government needs to “focus on the issues at hand” and “keep our our eyes on the ball” in the fight against COVID-19. But she appeared to concede that effort is now at risk, saying “we have to retain [public] trust and confidence, and we just need to think about that in everything that we do.”
Anthony Wells, director of polling company YouGov, says Johnson has undoubtedly taken a hit in the surveys. But he additional it remains to be seen whether that dip will last “because clearly all the polling we’ve seen over the last three or four days has been done when every single newspaper is leading with the mess they’re in.”
While Tory MPs may be cheesed off with the boss, no clear challenger has in addition emerged. Under the Conservative Party rules, MPs can cause a vote to oust their leader once 54 of them have submitted a letter of no confidence to the 1922 committee, which represents backbenchers. A competitor candidate isn’t required for the vote to take place, but MPs would generally want a winner in sight before the time of action is under way.
Up to 12 letters have already been fired off, according to the Telegraph — some way off the necessary threshhold.
The same former No. 10 aide quoted above highlighted that the public may take a faint view of a leadership contest as the COVID picture is worsening again, and said spring would mark a more strategic moment at which to shake things up.
They also suggested Johnson has one last throw of the dice. Having got rid of his controversial chief aide Dominic Cummings and reshuffled his Cabinet, the Conservative Party “would tolerate one more change” in the form of another shake-up of his back room team “but it’s the only thing obtainable.”
Moving advisers who are allies of Johnson’s wife Carrie — a former Conservative communications chief regarded by many MPs as a bad influence on Boris — and replacing chief of staff Dan Rosenfield (before a Treasury civil servant) with a bona fide Tory are two options mooted if Johnson wants to mollify his restless band.
The chief minister has, however, defied the odds many times before, and his actions to date suggest he’ll do at any rate is necessary to prove the doubters wrong. At this point his strategy may amount to what Social Democratic Party founder Mike Thomas dubbed the “Travolta Micawber” approach: staying alive and hoping something turns up.
Extraordinary as it is to consider that the Conservatives could depose the person who gave them their resounding 2019 victory, MPs are already mindful that any successor would need to be in place by next summer in order to establish themselves before the next election. If Johnson can’t pull off in addition another big reappearance, his time really could be limited.
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.
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