Editor’s note, June 15, 8:30 am ET: The parliamentary committee investigating former Prime Minister Boris Johnson released its report Thursday. It would have recommended Johnson be suspended for 90 days had he remained in Parliament, and suggests he be stripped of privileges typically afforded to former MPs. Ellen Ioanes’s piece on what this means for his party, written before the release of the report, follows:
On Friday, June 9, former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned as a member of Parliament just after learning that an investigation into his flouting of Covid-19 rules while he was in office would result in sanctions.
Johnson’s announcement represents a stunning fall from grace for the populist leader elected in a 2019 landslide to “get Brexit done.” It’s also created further turmoil in the Conservative Party, already beset by chaos in the wake of Johnson’s resignation as prime minister last September. Though the government under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hasn’t suffered the scandals of Johnson and his immediate successor Liz Truss’s tenures, the Tory Party is widely unpopular, which is likely to affect the by-elections Johnson’s exit will trigger.
Johnson announced his resignation shortly after receiving a confidential report by the House of Commons Committee of Privileges investigating whether Johnson had lied to Parliament regarding the series of gatherings the then-prime minister and some of his staffers attended while the rest of the UK was in strict lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
In his resignation statement Friday, Johnson called the inquiry “a kangaroo court” and said that the committee had “not produced a shred of evidence that I knowingly or recklessly misled the Commons” over what was quickly dubbed “Partygate.” Johnson also implied that the committee was attempting to push him out of Parliament, saying, “Their purpose from the beginning has been to find me guilty, regardless of the facts.”
Johnson allies Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams announced their resignations from Parliament with immediate effect shortly after the former prime minister. Dorries had previously stated that she did not plan to stand in the next general elections but moved her departure up following Johnson’s resignation. Adams, too, resigned in the wake of Johnson’s departure — meaning the government will have to hold at least three by-elections for the seats vacated by Johnson and his close allies.
Though Johnson’s exit from Parliament is not as imminently cataclysmic as his resignation as the leader of the party last year, it makes clear the internal divisions among Tories, further endangering an already unpopular party ahead of general elections likely to take place next year. Such dissent in the ranks undermines Sunak’s authority even as he attempts to restore the UK’s status on the world stage.
The Conservative Party’s chaotic year has just gotten worse
The investigation into whether Johnson lied to Parliament regarding his actions during lockdown has not yet been made public; the committee will meet Monday, June 12, and is expected to release the report in the following days. The committee, made up of four Conservative MPs, two Labour MPs, and one member of the Scottish National Party, could have recommended Johnson be suspended from Parliament for 10 working days, which then could have triggered a by-election in Johnson’s Uxbridge district — which some experts say he might have lost.
Johnson stepped down as Prime Minister last July after a mass resignation of his cabinet ministers — including Sunak, who at the time was the chancellor of the exchequer (effectively, the government’s chief financial minister, responsible for taxation). In all, 62 ministers quit Johnson’s government after a series of scandals, including sexual assault allegations against ally Chris Pincher, forcing Pincher to resign and finally leave office in September.
In June 2022, Johnson had survived a no-confidence vote triggered by the Tories over lockdown partying in defiance of the government’s Covid-19 restrictions. Though he held on to his job for the next month, the vote revealed just how little confidence Johnson’s party had in him and how polarized the party had become since its resounding victory in the 2019 general elections.
Liz Truss, Johnson’s former foreign minister, succeeded him. She lasted only six weeks and, during her tenure, became the least popular prime minister in the history of polling after her and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng’s economic plan nearly tanked the British economy. As Vox reported at the time of Truss’s resignation:
On September 23, Truss’s former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng introduced the UK’s biggest tax cuts in 50 years, estimated at about 45 billion pounds over five years. The following Monday, investors soundly rejected the new economic plan, dubbed “Trussonomics” in reference to Reaganomics, the supply-side economic policies passed under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Global markets responded to the policy by selling off UK-backed assets and pushing the UK’s currency, the pound, to a valuation of $1.03, its lowest-ever value against the dollar, before it inched up later in the week.
Sunak took over for Truss; after the chaos of his two immediate predecessors, Sunak was seen as a technocrat who could right the ship and carry the Tories to the next general election, which must be held by January 2025. Sunak has indeed managed to at least project stability and competence, particularly as a world leader.
“The best you can say for Sunak is that by these resignations and by-elections, he’s losing people inside the parliamentary party who were difficult inside his own party,” according to Tony Travers, a visiting professor in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. “But that’s the smallest crumb of comfort, I think, in the big scheme of things because his authority is damaged.”
The Tories’ days in power are numbered
Following Johnson’s multiple crises and scandals and Truss’s brief and bizarre leadership, Tories have tanked in polls. In May, the party lost about 1,000 seats in local elections, giving Labour its largest majority in local government since 2002, as the Guardian reported at the time.
Though that alone doesn’t necessarily forecast a Labour win in the next general election, the combination of the Tories’ unpopularity, a serious cost-of-living crisis, and the very real rift between Johnson’s wing of the party and more traditional Tories could very well turn voters away.
Sunak himself is not overwhelmingly popular; a YouGov tracker of Conservative politicians’ popularity puts him at 25 percent, behind Johnson and former Prime Minister Theresa May. He’s struggled to implement his five pledges, including delivering on immigration and improving the National Health Service, which has suffered after years of austerity.
“One of the problems for Sunak is that his party is so all over the place that, on a whole range of issues, if he goes one way, he’ll alienate a bunch of them and if he goes another, he’ll alienate another bunch,” Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at London’s Institute for Government, told the New York Times in January after Sunak announced his plan.
Sunak’s challenges, combined with the Tories’ established unpopularity, don’t bode well for the next general elections; in a recent survey on voting intentions, Labour had a 19-point lead over the Tories.
In the short term, the Tories will have to contend with the three by-elections for Johnson’s, Dorries’s, and Adams’s seats — all seemingly coordinated, Travers said, to cause maximum damage to Sunak and the party.
“By-elections in the UK are famously prone to massive swings and shifts of opinion, so almost any seat becomes a potentially losable one in the middle of this kind of crisis for a political party,” he told Vox.
Johnson hinted that he might return to the political stage in his resignation letter — perhaps running in a less contentious seat than in the London-area constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where he has only a slim majority. While Johnson is nowhere near as popular as he was in 2019, he still has a core of supporters within Parliament and within the party membership. It’s unlikely he’d make it back to the UK’s highest office, but in the meantime, he can continue to direct attention to himself, to Sunak’s detriment, Travers said.
“[Sunak will] find himself, every time he’s visiting President Biden or President Macron or President Zelenskyy or whoever it is, and being seen as a player on the world stage and sorting out some of the messes he’s inherited, up will pop Boris Johnson with some new element in the psychodrama there. And that’s the problem, it looks like a rumbling civil war, which indeed it is.”