LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is battling to get his premiership back on track as mounting allegations of impropriety against him and his Conservative colleagues spin out of control.
Mr Johnson and other Cabinet members faced a fresh barrage of questions on Sunday (Nov 14) over their conduct, the 11th straight day of negative headlines against the Tories since the premier’s ill-judged decision to block the suspension of prominent Brexit-backing Member of Parliament (MP) Owen Paterson for paid lobbying.
The government promptly U-turned following a public outcry over the prospect of Mr Paterson being absolved, but it did little to stop the wave of sleaze allegations against the party.
In a stark sign that the Tories’ popularity is waning, two weekend polls showed Mr Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is ahead.
“Of course I think things could certainly have been handled better, let me put it that way, by me,” Mr Johnson said at the end of a Downing Street press conference late Sunday – the most contrition he’s offered over the debacle.
But such a throwaway line is unlikely to satisfy those Tory MPs who are privately demanding a proper apology and explanation.
There’s a growing uneasy feeling among backbenchers – many of whom are furious about Mr Johnson’s handling of the current crisis – that the tide is turning against the premier after months of him riding out similar issues.
The fear in Conservative circles is that the shine is starting to come off Mr Johnson, and the masses of new voters he won in the landslide 2019 election are beginning to question their choice.
One poll by Savanta ComRes for the Daily Mail showed a six-point lead for Labour.
And an Opinium poll for The Observer recorded a one-point advantage, the first lead for the main opposition party from the pollster since January.
It’s a massive change in fortune for Mr Johnson and the Tories; just a few months ago, senior Labour figures were gloomy about their chances at the next election and saw little hope of beating the man who many in Westminster had dubbed “Teflon”.
If Mr Johnson starts to consistently lose his popular appeal, he knows he faces a difficult fight with his party. As one Tory MP said on condition of anonymity last week, it’s a coldly transactional relationship: Mr Johnson wins elections and the party lets him be prime minister.
Yet there’s a sense now that Mr Johnson is able to get away with less than he used to – with both his backbenchers and the public – as the worst of the coronavirus pandemic subsides and the focus turns to his domestic agenda.
There’s no end to his troubles in sight.
On Sunday, Labour demanded an investigation into his relationship with US entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri after she claimed – in a diary entry published by The Observer – he’d asked how he could be the “throttle” in her career while he was London mayor.
Mr Johnson also faces ongoing questions over a holiday to Marbella in Spain last month and his failure to properly register his stay in a villa owned by his friend and Tory peer, Mr Zac Goldsmith’s family.
He also faced allegations this year over the funding of his apartment refit, which initially relied on a loan from a Tory donor. He was cleared of wrongdoing but was told he acted “unwisely”.
Separately, he was accused of an “over-casual attitude toward obeying the rules of the House” during a probe into the declaration of a luxury holiday to Mustique.
Meanwhile, claims of misconduct are piling up against senior Conservative colleagues including former attorney general Geoffrey Cox and Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg. Both say they acted in accordance with the rules.
Mr Johnson will hope he can shift attention onto his much-hyped “leveling up” agenda, and on driving his net zero plans after the United Nations COP26 summit he hosted in Britain punted the hardest decisions into the future.
But he won’t be able to escape the debacle this week. On Monday, the government will face fresh humiliation when MPs formally withdraw its botched attempt to rip up standards laws.
And on Wednesday, Mr Johnson faces an uncomfortable grilling from the Commons liaison committee, a senior panel of all select committee chairs, who can ask questions on all subjects.