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A virus, a party and a lockdown: Why Boris Johnson’s luck may have just run out

Analysis: A recent poll showed that support for the Conservatives had dipped to its lowest level in nine years, putting the party 10 points behind the opposition.
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LONDON — Could this actually be it for Boris Johnson?

The prime minister faced the fight of his career Thursday after his qualified apology for flouting Covid regulations imposed by his government failed to quiet whispers about a mutiny within his own Conservative Party.

On Wednesday, Johnson told a packed House of Commons that he was sorry for attending the May 20, 2020, party at No. 10 Downing St., but that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event.”

This statement prompted laughter and jeers in the chamber. Johnson had finally admitted to attending the “bring your own booze” party with dozens of staff members in the garden of his residence and office. The event was held during a strict government lockdown that meant Britons were only allowed to meet one other person from outside their household, while schools, pubs and nonessential shops were closed.

“The prime minister’s position has become or is becoming untenable.”

What is widely seen as a botched apology comes on top of weeks of allegations of sleaze against the Conservatives that have left Johnson in the most precarious position of his political career, according to some Conservatives and many political observers. So while the prime minister who delivered Brexit and unprecedented electoral victories has navigated rough water many times before, this week’s unique crosscurrents threaten to drown him in earnest.

“We haven’t seen this combination of loss in trust with him personally and loss of trust in his party before,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University in London, said. “What really separates this moment is the fact that the … Conservative Party as a whole has lost its lead in the opinion polls and people are seriously looking at the Labour Party as an alternative in a way they haven’t been for years.”

Johnson, a jocular former journalist known as much for his colorful personal life as for his politics, has survived successive crises through force of popularity. The Conservatives won a resounding victory in the 2019 elections on the back of his broad populist appeal in the so-called Red Wall — working-class areas that were dependable Labour seats for decades. 

In his comments Wednesday, Johnson repeatedly reminded Parliament of his successes during the pandemic, particularly the U.K.’s relatively fast and comprehensive vaccination campaign. But many Britons hold mixed views on Johnson’s record on the pandemic: He was often reluctant to lock the country down even as it recorded some of the world’s highest death rates.

Care Worker Visiting A UK Residents Home
When dozens attended a party at the prime minister's official residence in May 2020, strict lockdown measures meant that Jack Hornsby, seen here at his home in Elstree, England, was barred from seeing almost anybody aside from care worker Fabiana Connors.Karwai Tang / Getty Images file

But a recent YouGov poll for The Times newspaper, taken before Johnson’s apology, showed that support for the Conservatives had dipped to its lowest level in nine years, putting the party — also called Tories — 10 points behind a Labour Party that seemed unelectable only a few years ago.

It also confirmed other recent polls that showed two-thirds of Britons want the prime minister to resign.

But the real pressure will come from within his own party — a surprising shift in fortunes for a tried and tested election winner like Johnson. The mutiny has been led by Scottish Conservatives who have long sat on their party’s moderate wing.

Others have lately joined the anti-Johnson movement.

“The prime minister’s position has become or is becoming untenable,” said Sir Roger Gale, a Conservative member of Parliament from eastern England in a telephone interview with NBC News. “Things have come to a head. I think it’s a cumulation — culminating in something that we all feel very strongly about.”

Gale called Johnson’s attenuated apology “crass” and contrasted  his own family’s isolation during the pandemic to the parties at the prime minister’s office.

The scandal comes at a time when Johnson may have overstayed his usefulness to his party, said Steven McCabe, associate professor at Birmingham City University.

Johnson’s resounding 2019 electoral success came on the back of his “Get Brexit Done” pledge to leave the European Union once and for all.

But that Johnson did, in fact, get Brexit done may have made him expendable rather than essential.

“I think what we’re beginning to see is the sort of breaking of ranks,” McCabe said, adding that what the Tories are most interested in is retaining power. “And of course, you don’t retain power having a leader who seems to be sort of yesterday’s man.”

With Johnson’s popularity down, the knives are out and all eyes are on rivals within his government, particularly Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

Tellingly, Sunak wasn’t in attendance at Johnson’s apology Wednesday. And both popular Tory leaders waited hours before releasing lukewarm statements of support for the prime minister.

U.K. PM Johnson Finally Gets to Put His Brexit Deal to the Vote
Liz Truss, left, and Rishi Sunak, center, are considered Johnson's main rivals within the Conservative Party. Chris J. Ratcliffe / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Sunak, who polled ahead of Johnson last month before this latest scandal, tweeted that Johnson “was right to apologize and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry.”

Gray is the civil servant charged by Johnson’s government last month with investigating high-level Covid violations. Johnson implored lawmakers to withhold their judgment until Gray submits her investigation of the scandal, probably by the end of next week, according to The Times.

That should buy him some time, and indeed Labour leaders accused Johnson of hiding behind his office’s investigation. 

But Johnson enjoys few of the prerogatives that protect American presidents: He doesn’t need to be impeached or voted out in a national election to be forced from office.

If only 15 percent of Conservative Party members of Parliament (54 members out of 360) submit letters demanding Johnson’s removal, the party can move to a “vote of no confidence” on the prime minister. Those letters are submitted anonymously to party leadership, and no one outside of top officials knows how many have been written.

That closed process makes it tough for members to gauge their colleagues’ opinions and decide whether to risk sticking out their own necks.

Gale submitted his letter demanding Johnson’s removal a year ago after the prime minister failed to punish a top aide who had also violated Covid rules.

But despite his long-standing criticism of the prime minister, even Gale said he doesn’t relish a change in power.

“Whether now is the moment is a very moot point indeed,” he said. “Nobody particularly wants a leadership election while we’re still fighting off a pandemic.”