Is Boris Johnson’s time as PM drawing to a close?

More speculation about the PM – Owl

Sean O’Grady 

For his political enemies, in his own party as well as the opposition, it must be tempting to wonder if the brief, colourful and sometimes shocking Age of Johnson might soon be drawing to its close. With yet another U-turn, this time on face coverings, the return to schools in England could turn out to be as big a flop as the exam results fiasco, as the “world-beating” track and trace app or as embarrassing as various other faltering government initiatives in recent months (free school meals, NHS surcharge), it might indeed be difficult to see what use the Conservatives would have for Boris Johnson.

Johnson has already, lest we forget, spaffed a vast amount of political capital in the effort to save Dominic Cummings, and the prime minister has squandered goodwill at all levels of the Tory machine. Perhaps he’s outlived his usefulness now. Having won a general election (was it only eight months ago?) with a thumping majority, trounced Jeremy Corbyn and (sort of) got Brexit done, suddenly the dude Johnson looks more of a dud. He is surprisingly weak and vulnerable, unable to navigate out of the Covid-19 morass. The Tories have always been famously unsentimental about getting shot of failing leaders, no matter what their past achievements may be – May, IDS, Heath, even Thatcher were all publicly forced out. Michael Howard, back in 2005, was the last to go at a moment of his own choosing; before that you have to go back to Stanley Baldwin in 1937 to find a Tory leader who was entirely happy and content to retire, at peace with their successor, their party and its prospects.

It is always the next election that counts, and the Tories have lost too much ground in recent weeks to feel entirely comfortable with the current leadership. They’ve still got a modest lead, but it’s more thanks to lingering mistrust of Labour rather than confidence in the Conservatives. Keir Starmer’s personal ratings against Johnson look good. So too do Nicola Sturgeon’s in Scotland, where a different kind of political battle needs to be fought and won. Voters are more fickle these days too.

There are even some odd rumours circulating that Johnson himself may be contemplated soon standing down. He can sense where things are going. The fun’s stopped.

In the immediate term, parliament will be back soon, which will mean a resumption of plotting. The Tories have long been addicted to factionalism, and seem constantly on the search for some fresh channel through which to indulge their self destructive tendencies. What success they’ve enjoyed in their decade in power has been despite themselves. The modern Tory instinct for disloyalty is awesome.

That said, Johnson will probably be OK for a few months yet. The resignation of Ofqual boss Sally Collier and a last-chance warning for Gavin Williamson, as well as plans to reorganise the exams regulator, will probably get the critics off his back; and the science suggests that the schools won’t become centres for spreading the virus through communities. After all, all of the emergency local lockdowns happened while the schools were shut.

The longer term also looks relatively benign for Johnson. A general election need not be held until almost 2025; it is at least possible that Covid-19 and Brexit will be bad memories by then, and politics will look very different to today. The economy ought to be improving, if feebly, with luck buoyed by a global recovery.

It’s the medium term – the next six months to a year – that will be the most hazardous for the prime minister and his party. Brexit and a potential second wave of coronavirus, maybe combined with floods and flu will represent a quadruple whammy on an already sickly country. Imagine another national lockdown plus massive disruption from the loss of trade with Europe; the headlines would be of shortages and mass unemployment, evictions and collapsing public finances. Johnson’s enemies might consider it better timing to allow him to face his darkest hours (mostly of his own making) before they attempt to pick up whatever is left. He can then be left to write his memoirs, with whatever truths he chooses to embellish his tales.