Johnson and Sunak scandals bode ill for May's UK election

Despite his hold on power seeming unassailable after last May's polls, Johnson's premature departure from office remains a big possibility - unless he can turn a political corner fast.

FORMER Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who won 4 general elections in the 60s and 70s, famously coined in 1964 the phrase that "a week is a long time in politics".

Almost 6 decades later, the continuing relevance of his remark has been clear, with the United Kingdom's government having been rocked by a series of new revelations concerning Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the UK's 2 top ministers.

This has culminated, to date, with the disclosures on Tuesday (Apr 12) that both have now paid fixed penalty notices issued by the police for violating - in Downing Street - coronavirus lockdown laws. The payment of the fines is an admission that they broke the laws they themselves made in office, and there are growing calls for them both to resign.

Tuesday's bombshell caps off a woeful week for the government, which has featured a continuous drip-drip of tax-related revelations about Sunak's family finances in recent days.

The chancellor, widely seen as the favourite to succeed Johnson when the time comes, is badly on the political back-foot. His wife, Indian-billionaire heiress Akshata Murty, was pressured last week to start paying UK tax on her overseas earnings after renouncing her so-called "non-domiciled" status; and then Sunak referred himself to the Downing Street ethics adviser over claims that he has not been transparent about his tax arrangements.

Bad news for government

While some have already declared that the possibility of his becoming prime minister is now over, it is not yet 100 per cent clear what the medium- to longer-term implications of the revelations will be. However, in the shorter term, there is little question that the episode is very bad news for the government.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the fortunes of the government, plus Johnson's personal political prognosis, had appeared to stabilise after weeks of negative speculation over his future after the so-called Party-gate scandal revelations in Downing Street developed into a frenzy at the start of the year.

So far, police have issued at least 50 fines for breaches of lockdown regulations at gatherings in Whitehall and Downing Street, including to Johnson and Sunak.

This has generally gone down very badly with the UK public, as shown in 2 snap polls on Tuesday. One from Savanta ComRes found more than half of the population think Johnson should resign. A YouGov poll, also released hours after the latest penalty fine disclosures, found 75 per cent think the prime minister lied about breaking lockdown rules, and 57 per cent think he should resign.

The latest revelations are such a big blow to the government as, since the Ukraine conflict began, media attention had inevitably shifted from these domestic scandals, at least until the last few days. This does not mean the Party-gate issues went away, but that public focus was at least temporarily elsewhere.

The disclosures have rocked the government just as it is facing a wider series of scandals. Indeed, following last May's election success for the Conservatives in much of England, the ruling party has faced political headwinds during much of the second half of 2021 and first half of 2022.

Most recently, these problems have been economic in nature, with the UK facing a cost-of-living crisis with rampant inflation, and weaker economic growth. The main beneficiary of this is the opposition Labour Party, which has opened up a significant lead in polls ahead of May's local elections.

Some 30 months after Johnson's landslide general election victory in 2019, the government has been significantly weakened. What is increasingly clear is that while the prime minister may be one of the best campaigners in UK politics with his capacity to use simple slogans like "Get Brexit done" to cut through to the electorate, his ability to govern is much weaker.

The reason for this dichotomy is his skill set. For much of the last 2 years of pandemic, his approach to tackling the crisis has been chaotic and incoherent, reflecting the fact that his style is "big picture" and not details-focused, and his flamboyance is less suited to the times.

While Johnson has long had critics within the ruling-Conservatives, there is growing disquiet about whether he can last in office this year, let alone the next general election. Indeed, were it not for the Ukraine crisis, there may well have been a leadership challenge within the party to him by now.

When he scored his huge election win in December 2019, it was widely forecast 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 his stumbling political performance during the pandemic.

In addition to this are the problems that come from his extraordinary, "risk-on" approach to governing the nation. From the very start of his premiership, he deliberately took a more adversarial approach to Brexit than predecessor Theresa May.

The culmination of this saw him suspend Parliament, illegally, in a decision that was ultimately over-ruled by the Supreme Court, which caused embarrassment for the Queen, who had to formally approve the suspension request at Johnson's bidding.

Gambles

To be sure, some of Johnson's gambles have paid off for him. Yet since the turn of 2020, his "high-wire" approach to governance has generally backfired. He previously had much goodwill from the nation after his own brush with death from Covid in 2020, and was riding high in the polls, but now, the government is losing public support.

Barring further dramatic revelations, it is likely that Johnson and Sunak are safe politically until at least after next month's local elections. However, if the results are exceptionally poor, the political mood in the Conservative party may shift.

So the storm facing Johnson may yet lead to an ignominious ending for his prime ministership. Despite his hold on power seeming unassailable after last May's elections, his premature departure from office remains a significant possibility - unless he can turn a political corner fast.

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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