(Bloomberg) — Boris Johnson survived, but another roller coaster week may have stored up more trouble for his government and ruling Conservative Party.
The UK’s leader escaped without a major rebellion as “partygate” came to a head, with most Tory MPs deciding the illegal pandemic gatherings in Downing Street did not warrant bringing down a prime minister. As the party’s attention turns to the next general election expected in 2024, it has opted — for now — to keep the man nicknamed “Teflon” and “the greased piglet” in place.
In an interview on Friday, he waved off claims it had been a damaging few days after a report laid bare the extent of heavy drinking and partying in Downing Street during the pandemic. “Well no, I wouldn’t agree,” he said.
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Yet there are significant challenges ahead, including difficult elections in two parliamentary districts and a deepening cost-of-living crisis. More MPs have called for his resignation, though not yet enough to trouble him, and he still faces a parliamentary inquiry into whether he lied over the pandemic parties.
Even a £15 billion ($18.9 billion) support package to help Britons facing a cost of living crisis caused division when it was announced on Thursday. Though it won widespread support from consumer groups and economists, traditional low-tax, pro-business Tories accused Johnson of abandoning party principles.
Only last week, Johnson had ordered his MPs to vote against the Labour Party’s call for a windfall tax on energy firms. So when his government slapped a 25% levy on oil and gas companies to help fund the support package, it left some Conservatives asking how the party can distinguish itself from the opposition.
Tory MP Richard Drax accused the government of “throwing red meat to socialists,” while former cabinet minister David Davis pointedly warned that “stability of tax and low tax both encourage investment and growth.”
Johnson defended the move to Bloomberg, saying that while the package was “big potatoes,” it was “commensurate with the pressures that people are facing.” He said all Conservatives, including “the most extreme free market variety,” understood the need to help people with soaring energy costs.
He also warned that it won’t be enough to cover people’s extra costs.
“We’ve got to be absolutely clear with people it’s going to be difficult,” he said. “What we can do is make sure that we deal with the underlying causes of inflation but also keep our economy strong and open to investment.”
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That assertion has already been undermined, as BP Plc said it would now look again at its North Sea investment plans because of the new windfall tax. Some Tories also fear that the additional spending will push up inflation further, though Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak told Sky News on Friday that it would have a “minimal” impact, “much, much less” than 1 percentage point.
In many ways, the Tory row over the economy is a direct result of Johnson’s own success in 2019, when he delivered an emphatic election victory by persuading traditional Labour districts in northern England to back him to complete the UK’s divorce from the European Union. He also promised to “level up” the areas languishing behind by London and southeast England.
Read more: Boris Johnson Says the UK Economy Can Dodge a Recession
The result was a significant parliamentary majority and an expanded Conservative tent, representing more districts calling for dramatically different strategies. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser and now a public critic of the prime minister, refers to his old boss on Twitter using a shopping trolley emoji to depict him bouncing from side to side as he changes his mind.
The two special elections on June 23 will test Johnson’s ability to convince very different sets of voters. One is in Wakefield, west Yorkshire, which the Tories took from Labour’s “red wall” in northern England in 2019.
The other is Tiverton and Honiton, southwest England — a traditional Tory “blue wall” rural seat being strongly contested by the Liberal Democrats. Some MPs in such seats privately warn that Johnson is focusing too much on the north, at the expense of traditional Conservative constituencies.
The political backdrop is far from ideal, with both parliamentary seats being contested due to scandal. The Tories have trailed Labour in some opinion polls since December, and lost a “blue wall” seat to the Liberal Democrats last year.
Johnson himself is also still facing the aftermath of “partygate,” as the drip-drip of Tory MPs calling for his resignation continues. If the number of rebels reaches 54, or 15% of Tory MPs, Johnson would face a no-confidence vote — though they would need a majority to force him out.
“My golden rule about politics is that the more you can be talking about the things you’re doing for voters and the less you talk about the stuff going on in Westminster, the better off everybody is,” Johnson said.
Yet “partygate” is a Westminster scandal that matters hugely to many voters, especially those were unable to visit dying relatives because they were following the laws set by Johnson’s government.
Johnson himself was fined for attending one event in Downing Street — making him the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law — though he was not penalized for other events he attended.
Voters “can make their own minds up about my involvement, I leave it to people to decide,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to spend a second more talking about that stuff.”
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