Like a frenzied game show contestant, Boris Johnson leaps over all odds | Marthe Gill

How long will Boris Johnson last? At times like these, it’s common to look to precedents, but it’s difficult: no former prime minister has played the game of survival like him.

The best point of comparison for Johnson’s survival tactics comes not from politics, but from the cult 1980s Japanese game show, Takeshi’s Castle. There he is, covered in goo, jumping desperately between spinning rollers, repeatedly hit in the face with large plastic balls. While his predecessors might at this point regain their dignity and retire, Johnson simply jumps to the next soapy surface: still weakened but never quite finished. Meanwhile, some of his audience — especially those whose careers depend on his — may be beginning to view him not as weakened but as a survivor.

The latest hurdle to hit Johnson’s leadership in the face came on Tuesday. Johnson’s ethics adviser Christopher Geidt – a diplomatic guy, not a rebel – said there was a “legitimate question” whether the prime minister had breached the cabinet code. By the way, Geidt pointed out, somewhat sadly, that his own role — and with it the prime minister’s entire system of moral accountability — is essentially useless, as it relies entirely on Johnson’s cooperation. It’s up to Johnson, he said, with growing desperation, to decide if he’s done anything worth looking into. Did he?

To no one’s surprise, Johnson said no. The Prime Minister survives again (this challenge was not difficult), but it is now possible that Geidt will resign in protest. For a morally weakened leader, this resignation would not look good.

How in danger is Johnson? A vote of confidence in his leadership is already on the brink. To trigger one, the chairman of the 1922 Committee needs 54 letters from MPs and, while the current number is secret, 30 have so far been made public demanding that Johnson go or face a vote. A similar number of MPs had spoken out in a confidence vote against Theresa May in 2018. Over the past week, sentiment against Johnson has grown in the party, and even die-hard supporters such as ‘Andrea Leadsom delivered harsh public condemnations. There’s a chance that Geidt’s intervention – or perhaps his resignation – will be the final straw that means the crucial 54 is reached.

Nothing is certain. There is yet to be a coordinated rebellion to oust Johnson, as there was when MPs called for a vote of confidence in Theresa May. Instead, the drip of letters tells the story of individual MPs reaching the ends of their tethers. This makes the source of the next letter unpredictable. And then there is also the buffer zone for the Jubilee weekend. Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, would wait until Monday to call for a vote of confidence even if he had the 54 letters. Meanwhile, MPs will be with their families and newspapers will likely want to give their readers a political break during the celebrations, which will make it difficult to make a move against Johnson.

For many MPs, the math is still complicated. Certainly, if Johnson is mortally wounded, they would like to participate in the killing: many of their constituents are angry with Johnson, and it would be nice to have a hand in his downfall. But a vote of confidence is a gamble. While only 54 MPs are needed to trigger one, 180 MPs would have to vote against Johnson for him to be ousted.

On Johnson’s side is the payroll vote – those ministers and parliamentary private secretaries for whom the stakes are particularly high. If they vote against him, they are expected to resign; the vote is secret but leaks are not impossible. It can give them a break. Another factor in his favor is that, unlike May in 2018, no successor is looming. The cost of living crisis will make this a daunting task for any new Tory leader, and some MPs are tempted to hope that Johnson can still pull off some gravity-defying magic with voters, regardless.

Crucially, if Johnson wins a vote of confidence, he technically enjoys one-year immunity. Such a prospect is enough to make even Johnson’s biggest critics bide their time. Some, however, cite the May 2018 vote of confidence as proof that the supposed technical immunity is not binding: she won but was fatally weakened by the vote, and her resignation came a few months later when she informed that a second vote of confidence had been called. But Johnson isn’t May: She didn’t have her immunity to shame, or her ability to hold on to slippery surfaces. In a similar situation, the current prime minister might choose to stay.

Given all this, MPs may decide to postpone the vote of confidence for what some call the litmus test: how the party fares in the upcoming by-elections, particularly the June 23 one in Tiverton and Honiton, a supposedly safe berth for conservatives. Polls show Johnson losing popularity with voters at a rapid rate. A recent YouGov report suggested the party was on course to lose virtually every battleground seat. If his MPs feel that even safe seats are at risk — that they would not only lose an election, but it would cost them their seat — that would likely be the end of Johnson.

For a self-declared winner, electoral power is what matters most. What ultimately settled May’s fate was her poor performance in a succession of elections, including local ones. For Johnson, that may be the only precedent that matters.


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Edward L. Robinett