Exactly how many political lives does Boris Johnson have? That’s the question many people are asking this week, in Great Britain and beyond, after the British prime minister survived a vote of no confidence by his Conservative Party colleagues. In a secret ballot late Monday, Johnson received the backing of 211 Conservative parliamentarians. But 148 voted to oust him as their party’s — and by extension, their country’s — leader, more than many analysts had anticipated, and certainly more than would have made the Johnson camp comfortable.
Not for the first time in his colorful career, Johnson’s troubles began with a series of embarrassing disclosures that nearly led to his ouster. In the end, he survived, bruised but still at the helm.
The no-confidence vote was called less than three years after Johnson delivered his party’s best electoral performance since the 1980s. To discuss Johnson’s fall from sky-high popularity, and the way forward for the prime minister, his party, and British politics and policies going forward, Grid’s Global Editor Tom Nagorski spoke with Deputy Global Editor Nikhil Kumar, who lived and reported from Great Britain for many years.
This interview originally took place as a Twitter Spaces conversation and has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Nagorski: Nikhil, maybe we can start with a fundamental question about what got us here and what got Great Britain to this moment. How is it that a leader who rode such a huge wave of support to No. 10 Downing St. now finds himself in such rough waters politically? Not only a no-confidence vote, but I believe he was booed at St. Paul’s Cathedral during the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the queen’s reign. So how did we get to where we are today?
Nikhil Kumar: You’re right. And it all has to do with what happened in the months after the end of 2019, which is to say covid-19. And all kinds of restrictions were introduced around the world, including in Britain, to do with how many people could congregate, how one could socialize. And it began emerging a little while ago that around that same time, as these restrictions were enforced, as ordinary Britons were unable to see family members, unable to see friends, unable to go outside — and as many people in the country were facing fines connected to these restrictions — that inside No. 10 Downing St., which is the prime minister’s office and home in the heart of London, that there were social gatherings and parties. It came to be known as “Partygate.” And it turned out there were more than one — there were in fact several gatherings during the time that the rest of the country was under some pretty severe restrictions.
And as this began to emerge, it became a massive controversy in the country. There has been a lot of public outrage. And ultimately, it led to this no-confidence vote. And as you say, he’s pretty wounded for a leader who was riding extremely high not that long ago.
TN: Before we leave “Partygate,” as you put it, I was struck at the time that it wasn’t just that they were violating the law of the moment, but also seemed like an awful lot of boozing, for lack of a better term, even if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic.
NK: I think at another time, maybe, but you know, it really comes down to the timing, the fact of when it happened. And it wasn’t one event. Just a few weeks ago, there was a report that was published, following an investigation by a civil servant in the U.K. She looked at 16 events, among which the police found many breaches of covid rules during the pandemic. And that just gives you an idea. There was a picture, for example, of Boris Johnson, his chancellor of the Exchequer, and others gathered in the Cabinet Room and No. 10 for a birthday party. Boris Johnson seems quite jovial, standing there, and there was another picture showing him drinking with staff at an event to mark the departure of officials in November 2020.
The police has looked into this. They issued 126 fines to more than 80 people. Importantly, one of those people was Boris Johnson himself, making him the first British prime minister found to have broken the law while in office. So I think that certainly fed the public outrage. It also reinforced this image of, you know, an elitist party, which is something that the Conservative Party has often been accused of in the U.K., of living by one set of rules when everybody else has to live by another.
TN: What you’ve just laid out provokes another question, which is, why wasn’t he voted down given, as you say, he broke the law? There was a marvelous line — I have to tip my hat to Mark Landler, the London bureau chief at the New York Times, who described Boris Johnson as, quote, an “ethically flexible journalist turned politician.” You’ve used the term “Teflon prime minister,” as in, nothing sticks to him. But why? Why didn’t he get voted down?
NK: Well, he did win that election at the end of 2019. But there’s also this broader thing. I read that same line in the Times, and it describes Boris Johnson pretty accurately. Boris Johnson is a man who has been a journalist, he was mayor of London, he’s been a member of Parliament — and he’s had many, many controversies, which would have ended many, many political careers. And yet he has survived again and again. Part of the reason is because people often look at him and think of him as just a guy who’s being honest, that this whole bumbling persona is somehow authentic. People are divided on that, but it’s helped him again and again. The question now, of course, after this very significant vote against and even though he survives in office, is how is this going to affect him going forward?
TN: Let’s move forward, then, to look at where this vote leaves him. Where it leaves Boris Johnson, his party and so forth. And perhaps here, I should quote Boris Johnson himself. After the vote, the prime minister said, quote, “It’s a convincing result, a decisive result. And as a government, we can now focus and move on to the stuff that really matters to people,” unquote. In other words, everything’s fine. We got through this. We can now go about the business of governing as usual. I take it, for all the reasons you just laid out, it’s not that simple?
NK: No, it’s not that simple at all. And you’re right, Boris Johnson has been putting a pretty brave face on all of this, as have his allies.
But the country is like other countries around the world, emerging from covid-19. It is facing a variety of domestic issues, not least inflation. And of course the conflict in Ukraine, where Boris Johnson has been quite prominent in rallying support and working with the U.S. And so they make the point that we have to deal with all of these things, we need to focus. But having so many rebels within his own party is going to make governing complicated for him, because now every time something goes wrong, if there is even the slightest controversy, he’s going to face more questions. And that could then become a reason for even more people to join the rebel cause.
Technically, under current rules, he can’t face another leadership challenge from within his own party, another no-confidence vote, for another year. But the rules could change. And there is now a parliamentary committee which looks at the behavior of members of Parliament in the U.K. They’re investigating these events that I mentioned, that were part of that civil servant’s report. And so for all we know, in the next few weeks and months, we might see yet more evidence, perhaps more damning evidence. So we’ll have to see how he’s able to navigate that and how he’s able to make it work, at least in the next two years, until the next general election. But there is no doubt that he is a much, much weaker prime minister today than he was just a day or two ago, before the vote.
TN: Let’s get briefly to governing, and what some of the key issues and agenda items are. Because beyond lockdown parties, Boris Johnson also has the headwinds of an economy with supply chain issues, I believe they have double-digit inflation now in the U.K., bad even by the standards we see here in the U.S. What are the core issues facing the U.K. right now, for whoever is in charge?
NK: I think you’ve summed them up, certainly on the domestic side: inflation, the cost of living crisis, as it’s been referred to in the U.K. press and by public figures. That is very much front and center, people are feeling the pinch, supply chain issues have been affecting, you know, what people are able to buy at supermarkets. There are many people who think that over the next few months and years, more people are going to feel much more in their pockets the effects of Brexit as well, and how that plays out. And dealing with all of that is going to require a government that can at the very least push through its policies. And so we’ll have to see what happens with Boris Johnson and the rebellion that he faces.
There’s also the possibility, after the government has spent lots and lots of money over the last two years to support people’s incomes and support businesses, that they’re going to have to deal with all of that debt overhang.
And the conflict in Ukraine comes into play here, in terms of the energy crisis and its impact on rising prices. That’s being felt by a lot of people in the U.K. So that’s another big agenda item for Boris Johnson. He’s going to have to deal with all of these issues at the same time as he’s dealing with opposition, and we’ll have to see whether he can make it work.
You know, Boris Johnson is very good at pithy quotations. And many years ago, he said, in a different context, he said that his policy on cake is to have it and to eat it. Today, it’s not quite clear that he can do that.
TN: A question about the war in Ukraine: [Russian President] Vladimir Putin had bargained on a fractured and certainly not a united response from the United States and its allies in NATO. To what extent would a change in leadership in the U.K. make a difference, in terms of what has been so far pretty steadfast support from Great Britain for the Ukrainian resistance?
NK: On that, I don’t think there will be any real change. The current Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has made a point of standing by Ukraine and standing against Russia’s invasion. There’s no indication that public support in that country is shifting in any way. I think you would see a continuation of this policy where Britain stands with the United States.
A bigger question when we talk about the Labour Party: Labour’s been out of power for more than a decade. They’ve lost the last four general elections. From Labour’s point of view, Ukraine is probably the easiest thing. I think there will be a continuation of these policies. But after that, things become much more complicated. When we start talking about what Labour stands for elsewhere under Mr. Starmer, it’s not quite clear. What is the sharp division between Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and the Labour Party? And that’s one area where, to go back to something you asked me about earlier, why did Boris survive? Well, it wasn’t just the fact that there was no alternative within his party. You know, right now, Boris Johnson also benefits in a broader political sense from the fact that it’s hard to pin down what the Labour Party stands for.
TN: So we’re going to put you on the spot for our last question. Which is, as we’ve said, Boris Johnson has a couple of years left in his term. Is he going to ride it out? Are we going to see someone else from the Conservative Party jump in? Or will Labor take the reins? Care to hazard a guess?
NK: This is always tricky. But I cannot remember the number of pieces over the years that I’ve read that have predicted the end of Boris Johnson’s political career. Whether it was when he was a member of Parliament, or mayor of London, when he was running to be leader and so on. It just seems to me that this man is extremely good at getting out of complicated situations. I also think that we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that for all the opposition, he is still this guy who delivered for his party their best electoral results since the 1980s. So if I had to bet, and I would only bet maybe one, maybe two dollars, that he’s going to survive two years actually.
More controversial, but I think he’ll survive. We’ll see what happens with the party investigation; Boris Johnson is still far and away the most charismatic leader over there. And he just has a way of somehow portraying himself — despite all his many, many controversies — as authentic. And despite the fact that this is a guy whose history ticks every box for elitist, he gets away with it and wins all kinds of seats that have traditionally gone to Labour for a long, long time. So yes, I would say, you know, two more years. He’s going to stay.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.