foreign interests

Boris Johnson Can’t Lose

Bojo still retains a small amount of mojo. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty images

If Wikipedia is to be believed, Thucydides admitted to the king of Sparta that Pericles — purportedly Boris Johnson’s favorite historical figure — was a better fighter than he was, because even when beaten, he could make it seem as if he had won.

Johnson is not yet beaten. But even though he won this week’s no-confidence vote, he needs to channel his ancient hero if he is to convince the U.K. that losing the support of two-fifths of his own party is actually a good thing.

To be fair to the PM, he is giving it a solid effort. On Monday evening, 148 Tory members of Parliament — or just over 40 percent of the Conservative parliamentary party — said they wanted him to step down over the scandal known, unfortunately, as “Partygate.” Johnson’s reaction? To tell broadcasters, while bouncing energetically on the balls of his feet, that “we are going to bash on.” It was, in his estimation, an “extremely good, positive, decisive, and conclusive result.”

History (modern, not Johnson’s preferred ancient) suggests otherwise. Just four years ago, the Tories were busy trying to defenestrate their then-leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, via a vote of no confidence. She too won the vote, and by a healthier margin than Johnson. But within five months, she was standing in front of the famous black door to 10 Downing Street, choking back tears and announcing her resignation.

Another Tory PM, John Major, famously told his party in 1995 that it was “time to put up or shut up.” He called his own confidence vote and won by a greater majority than Johnson. But his critics refused to shut up. Conservatives remained divided, and less than two years later, the U.K. handed Tony Blair a huge majority.

Of course, the rules have never applied to Johnson, which is part of his unique charm. His persona is based on an uncanny ability to withstand the forces of political gravity. He was twice elected mayor in London, a city that by conventional wisdom tilts to the left. In the 2019 general election, he won scores of parliamentary seats in England’s former industrial heartlands in the North and the Midlands, long considered Labour’s natural territory.

But surely he can’t escape history forever? Over the past year, Johnson has led the Tories to defeat in two special elections held in formerly safe seats, and later this month, there will be special elections in two parliamentary seats previously held by Conservative MPs. One of these lawmakers resigned after he was caught watching porn on his mobile phone in the House of Commons Chamber, the other after a criminal court convicted him of molesting a 15-year-old boy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Tories are expected to lose these seats to the Liberal Democrats and Labour, respectively. Johnson reportedly told his MPs ahead of Monday’s no-confidence vote, “We will win again.” More losses in safe seats will make that sound like a standard Johnson promise: readily given, rarely kept.

The country is also enduring what is frequently referred to as a “cost-of-living crisis.” As in the U.S., inflation has skyrocketed, and with it the price of everything. In the mind of his critics on the right of his party, Johnson’s response is a little bit too Labour: increasing business taxes in order for the state to hand out money. They despair that Johnson has raised the tax burden to its highest level since the Second World War. It is a central tenet of their brand of conservatism that the only acceptable response to an economic crisis is to cut taxes and rein in state spending.

To his many critics on the left, he remains a populist whose policy-making is driven by a desire to make headlines that distract from his political woes. They are queasy at the prospect of tearing up the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol agreed to by Britain and the E.U., which they say would amount to a breach of international law. More recently, they say his plan to send to Rwanda any asylum seekers who travel across the English Channel in inflatable boats is cruel and likely unlawful.

And though the civil servant Sue Gray has already issued her much-awaited report on Partygate, there undoubtedly will be more fallout from the scandal that brought Johnson to this point. In October, nearly a year after stories of parties in Downing Street first emerged, the so-called Privileges Committee of the House of Commons will issue a report on whether the PM had misled the Commons when he claimed that, despite his standing in a room full of party food with an alcoholic drink in his hand, there were no parties in Downing Street during the lockdown he had imposed.

Surviving a no-confidence vote is supposed to lead to death by a thousand cuts. A more traditional politician in this predicament might limp on only to resign in a few months’ time, when — for argument’s sake — he has lost two special elections and the papers are full of further revelations about ABBA parties in his private residence that somehow neither the police nor Gray got around to investigating. But if we can be sure of anything, it’s that Johnson will not step down of his own accord.

He will keep buggering on, and why not? He has no obvious successor. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has suffered a dizzying collapse in support both within the Conservative Party and in the country at large because of his raising of taxes and revelations that his fabulously rich wife pays no, or very little tax, in Britain. The allure of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss seems to be fading over concerns that she may be more interested in photo ops than in policies.

The Labour Party is ahead in polls, but its lead is modest. In the local elections held last month (the nearest thing the U.K. has to midterms), Labour did better than the Tories, but it wasn’t the sweeping victory it was hoping for.

Keir Starmer, the party’s leader, has made a great deal of his probity, playing up his former role as the nation’s chief prosecutor, but he is about as charismatic as your average lawyer. On Monday, he stood in front of the now-obligatory two Union Jack flags to provide his response to the confidence vote and, like overworked and underappreciated middle-aged dads at bath time the world over, shouted the words fed up twice into the microphone for emphasis.

Now Starmer has his own troubles with the law: He is currently being investigated for having a curry and a bottle of lager with staff last year during a COVID lockdown. He and his deputy claim innocence and have said they’ll resign if fined by the police the way the prime minister was. But in an irony that seems fantastical even for Johnson’s political career, there could be a leadership election in the Labour Party long before one in the Tory Party.

The most used phrase in the grand Central Lobby of Parliament this week? Pyrrhic victory has to be in the running. But for all his classical learning, Johnson pays attention only to its second half. His politics are not that subtle: I won, you lost. I am going nowhere.

Boris Johnson Can’t Lose