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Boris Johnson. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Boris Johnson. Picture: BLOOMBERG

The walls are closing in on Boris Johnson. The UK prime minister’s defiant posture in the House of Commons on Wednesday rallied loyalists but failed to placate new and old enemies within his party, who are calling on him to quit over lockdown-defying gatherings held at 10 Downing Street during the pandemic. Conservative MPs can trigger a leadership contest with 54 declarations of no confidence. A compelling successor has yet to emerge, but with popular support for Johnson and his party collapsing, it’s plausible that Johnson would lose such a vote. Few would deny he deserves to.

Johnson’s fall is ironic. Nobody ever supported him for his managerial talent, mastery of detail, ideological consistency or personal integrity. His lapses in all those respects have been widely documented and never really denied. In fact, almost the opposite: He and his supporters saw them as part of his political brand. Despite his upper-crust resume, he led the country as a clowning populist, determined to give the country what most Britons wanted — notably, Brexit. His erratic ways were seen as a kind of authenticity. With Boris, there was no polish or pretence. (Look at his hair.) What you saw is what you got.

Or so he claimed. The flouting of needlessly oppressive rules might be tolerated in members of the public and forgiven even of ordinary MPs, but when the prime minister — author and chief enforcer of the rules — behaves as though they don’t apply to him, backlash is inevitable. Johnson’s conduct betrays elitist arrogance, plain and simple, and shatters his claim to be on the side of ordinary people. What’s remarkable is that a leader with Johnson’s political instincts either failed to see this, or just assumed the information would never leak.

The prime minister has said he’s sorry and is playing for time, apparently planning a staff shake-up and hoping that passions will cool as an inquiry into the debacle wraps up. But the conditions that delivered Johnson’s astonishing election victory of 2019 no longer obtain. Brexit’s promised benefits are invisible and its mounting burdens impossible to ignore. The pandemic, some two years in, is once more threatening to overwhelm the National Health Service. Energy costs and prices in general are surging, threatening a vicious cost-of-living squeeze. Promised tax increases, needed to restore fiscal control, are about to compound that problem. And the Labour opposition is no longer led by a socialist who was suspended by his own party amid accusations of anti-Semitism.

Strange things happen in politics — and especially in British politics. But if Johnson and his party prevail against these forces, it will be a miracle.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

Bloomberg. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion


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