Can Boris Johnson Make It Through 2022 As Prime Minister?
January 6, 2022
After a bruising end to 2021 for Boris Johnson, even some of the most loyal Tory MPs are left asking if he will still be the man to lead their party by the end of this year. The Prime Minister might have hoped the Christmas recess would help press reset on the recent succession of scandals, from accusations of sleaze over attempts to rewrite parliamentary standards, to allegations of Downing Street parties at the height of lockdown. But in reality he still faces a rough ride when Parliament returns on Wednesday.
Against a backdrop of slumping polls, not just for the Conservatives but in the PM’s personal ratings, Johnson needs to tackle a host of issues including a looming cost of living crisis, the long-term effects of the pandemic, and snowballing Brexit teething problems.
Here are biggest challenges Boris Johnson needs to survive without being ousted by his party if he still hopes to be Prime Minister by the end of 2022:
Johnson’s fortunes began to change late last year with his ill-fated decision to try and block the suspension of the disgraced former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson over alleged lobbying. By forcing through attempts to change the system for dealing with MPs found to have breached Parliamentary rules, only to U-turn on them, Johnson managed to annoy both the public and his own backbenchers, as well as unwittingly open a can of worms over standards in public life.
While the committee on standards is due to come back with a revised code of conduct outlawing many second jobs currently enjoyed by some MPs, the bigger issue for Johnson is the potential investigation into his own propriety. In December he was accused of misleading Lord Geidt, his own ethics adviser, after an Electoral Commission investigation into who exactly paid what and when for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. This could now be the subject of an inquiry by Kathryn Stone, the Commons Standards Commissioner, potentially leading to an embarrassing suspension from the Commons and calls to resign.
There is also a Cabinet Office inquiry into the alleged Christmas parties held inside Downing Street and other government departments in 2020 while the rest of the country was under strict lockdown rules. According to The Times, Sue Gray, the civil servant leading the inquiry, has emailed more than a dozen officials and special advisers asking them to attend formal interviews over the matter.
Johnson has repeatedly said he has been “assured” the events were work-related and not parties, but the continued revelations – such as the leaked video of his former spokeswoman Allegra Stratton joking about such gatherings, and a picture of Johnson and staff with wine and cheese in the Number 10 garden – have meant Labour’s attack that “it’s one rule for them, another for the rest of us” is having cut through with the public, and angering Tories who are forced to defend them.
Cost Of Living
A sharp rise in the cost of living is likely to be one of the biggest problems for Johnson this year. The Resolution Foundation has warned that millions of people are facing a "year of the squeeze" in 2022 and predicting that households could face a £1,200 a year hit to their incomes.
Last year the Conservatives broke a manifesto pledge not to raise taxes when they announced a 1.25% increase in National Insurance contributions from April. The think tank believes this will cost the average household £600 a year, while the higher energy bills cap – driven up by rising wholesale gas prices and the failure of many of the cheapest suppliers – is expected to add an additional £500. Before April, broadband and mobile phone packages linked to the Consumer Price Index could rise by as much as 9% due to inflation, while rail fares will increase by another 3.8%.
The government says it has put £4.2billion in place to support households, but that might make little difference if runaway inflation is here to stay. Inflation surged by 5.1% in the 12 months to November 2021, the highest increase in a decade. The Bank of England now predicts it is set to peak at 6% in the spring. With the Resolution Foundation calculating that real wages are “unlikely to start growing again until the final quarter of 2022”, consumers face increased prices while tax rises mean they have less to spend.
Despite Johnson’s claim to have gotten Brexit “done”, it is increasingly clear that the issue will not be put to bed in 2022, and ironing out the UK’s new relationship with the EU continues to be a major headache.
The operation of the Northern Ireland protocol seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, and a whole host of new customs controls are due to come into force, which business leaders say could cause “significant disruption” and could see some British firms collapse. The government is delaying some of those new rules on goods moving from the island of Ireland to Great Britain while negotiations with Brussels continue on the protocol, though the talks are no longer being helmed by Lord Frost, after he dramatically quit the Cabinet in December.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss has now been handed the reins after spending the past two years hammering out post-Brexit trade deals. Some of those deals are now coming under scrutiny, however, with the agreement signed with Australia criticised by UK farmers and mocked for only adding a maximum 0.08% to the economy over 15 years.
The Conservative Party
MPs in the Conservative party are the only people who can remove Johnson from office this year, and he will need to keep them onside to prevent 55 or more of them sending letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady – chairman of the backbench 1922 committee – to trigger a leadership contest.
While there’s no indication that enough letters are going in yet, Johnson’s standing within the Conservatives is suffering, despite having delivered a stunning landslide election victory just two years ago. But the size of that win could actually be part of Johnson’s problem.
With such a large Parliamentary party, the government is unable to offer patronage to all those MPs who seek it, with factions of disgruntled ex-ministers and ambitious members of the 2019-intake joining forces with lockdown critics, net zero opponents and anti-tax Tories to provide a sizeable opposition on the Conservative benches.
Johnson appeared to ignore calls for further Covid restrictions in recent weeks due to fear of his own backbenches after the backlash to “plan b” measures, but if the NHS struggles to cope in January and February as a result of a surge in Covid hospitalisations and mass staff absences, he will not be able to duck that fight again.
There is a feeling among Tories that even those who were opposed to Johnson becoming leader will stick by him while he continues to be a winner, and he proved in 2021 that his brand of boosterism could see the party win in places it never has done before after the victory in Hartlepool.
But on top of losing a seat to the Lib Dems in the North Shropshire by-election, there was a similarly embarrassing defeat in Chesham and Amersham. Many MPs will be watching closely to see if Johnson can turn things around at the local elections on 5 May, when all London borough council seats are up for grabs, together with some metropolitan borough, mayoral and district councils in England, and all local authorities in Wales and Scotland.
If things don’t improve for the government, then enough letters of no confidence may rack up, and a leadership contest could take place this summer, with an eye on Johnson’s replacement having time to settle in before a possible election in 2023.
© Alain Tolhurst / Politics Home, 2022
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