Johnson Takes Aim at Next Big Political Threat: Soaring Prices in U.K.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson, under pressure over a scathing report on lockdown parties in Downing Street and with his party trailing in opinion polls, unveiled an aid package Thursday.

LONDON — His job seemingly secure despite new revelations over lockdown parties in Downing Street, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday moved to confront another big threat to his political future: the worst squeeze on British incomes in a generation.

Adopting a policy championed by the opposition Labour Party, the government promised a new and more generous package of aid worth billions of pounds to help all British households, but especially those struggling the most to pay spiking bills for gas and electricity.

The scale of the intervention underscored the headwinds still faced by Mr. Johnson as his Conservative Party trails in the opinion polls, inflation surges toward double figures and the British economy teeters on the brink of a recession.

Critics accused Mr. Johnson of rushing out his new announcement to distract attention from the “Partygate” scandal that for months has threatened to end his career.

That embarrassing saga reached its climax on Wednesday with the publication of a long-awaited internal report, complete with photos and replete with embarrassing details of alcohol-fueled karaoke parties.

On Thursday, Downing Street apologized for misleading journalists by denying that parties had taken place, and three more Conservative lawmakers called on Mr. Johnson to quit. In a statement, one of the lawmakers, David Simmonds, said that “while the government and our policies enjoy the confidence of the public, the prime minister does not.”

His colleague John Baron said that Mr. Johnson’s denial that he misled Parliament over what he knew about the parties in Downing Street was “simply not credible,” and Stephen Hammond, another Conservative lawmaker, issued a statement saying: “I have said consistently throughout I cannot and will not defend the indefensible.”

While the number of lawmakers now publicly demanding Mr. Johnson’s resignation now stands at around 20, a total of 54 would need to write letters to a senior colleague to trigger a no-confidence vote in Mr. Johnson.

Tolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

And while many Conservative lawmakers seemed reluctant on Wednesday to back Mr. Johnson publicly in Parliament over the “Partygate” scandal, so far they do not seem to want to fire him either.

“In the end, the number of members of Parliament who are unwilling to defend him is irrelevant, what is important is the number willing to condemn him — and there are simply not enough of them,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

Part of their caution is the lack of an obvious successor, particularly given that the popularity of one leading contender, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, has slipped in recent months following a furor over his wife’s tax arrangements.

But Mr. Johnson also has created a political brand that would be hard to replicate.

In the 2019 general election he won over many voters in the “red wall” areas in the north and middle of England — regions that had traditionally supported Labour — with his populist pro-Brexit campaigning.


In government, Mr. Johnson has talked tough on divisive issues like immigration, for example, outlining plans to send asylum seekers, including those arriving on small boats from France, to Rwanda to process their claims. But he also raised public spending and taxes against the ideological grain of the Conservative Party, which prides itself on fiscal discipline.

If his lawmakers want to retain that blend of policies, and keep the coalition of voters they assembled in the 2019 general election, their options are limited. “It’s difficult to see who else could straddle it rather than Boris Johnson,” Professor Bale said.

Yet that might not be enough to protect the prime minister ahead of the next election, which must be held by the end of 2024, but could come next year.

The “Partygate” saga is not yet over because a committee of lawmakers is investigating whether Mr. Johnson deliberately misled Parliament about what he knew about lockdown-breaking gatherings in Downing Street. Lying to the House of Commons is considered a resigning matter in Britain.

News of the Downing Street parties enraged many Britons who obeyed rules that sometimes barred them from visiting dying relatives, and it has taken a big toll on Mr. Johnson’s personal ratings, particularly those tracking levels of trust in him.

Andy Rain/EPA, via Shutterstock

With Britons feeling the effects of higher inflation and rising interest rates, the Conservatives are trailing Labour in opinion polls and in local elections earlier this month lost around 500 seats in local municipalities.

The announcement Thursday on the cost of living aid was designed to claw back some of that support, but also represents a reversal by the government because it raises funds through a windfall tax on energy firm profits.

That policy was dismissed by ministers for months and, though Mr. Sunak’s plan has another name — “a temporary targeted energy profits levy” — it differed only in detail from Labour proposals that Conservative lawmakers were ordered to vote against recently.

Acknowledging the problems that lie ahead, Mr. Sunak said there was “a collective responsibility to help those who are paying the highest price for the high inflation we face.”

But worse could come for the government next month when elections are held in two parts of the country where Conservative lawmakers have been forced to resign in disgrace. Labour will hope to win in Wakefield, a seat in the north of England where Imran Ahmad Khan was elected for the Conservatives in 2019. He has since been convicted of sexual assault on a teenage boy.

The Conservatives have a much bigger majority in the other area, Tiverton and Honiton in the south of England, where their lawmaker, Neil Parish, resigned after admitting to watching pornography in Parliament. Here, the centrist Liberal Democrats are well placed to make gains.

If these elections to go against the Conservatives and Labour consolidates its opinion poll lead, Mr. Johnson’s lawmakers might calculate that their own prospects of re-election are bleak. And if defeat appears to loom at the next election, more will want to roll the dice and remove their scandal-prone leader.

“The only metric that really counts,” said Professor Bale, “is the Conservative opinion poll rating.”


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