“Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me” he repeated three times, standing behind his plexiglass desk. Lost in his notes, looking haggard and disheveled hair, Boris Johnson has to improvise in spite of himself. He first compares himself to Moses, then quotes Lenin before evoking his last family excursion to the village of Peppa Pig (the famous English cartoon whose heroine is a little sow).
This astonishing scene takes place Monday, November 22 morning in front of the CBI, Confederation of British Industry, in other words the British employers, the kind of public that a Prime Minister wants to put in his pocket, especially at this time. A star figure of the BBC confides to us: “Usually, his jokes and even his hesitations in his speeches are intentional, millimeter, written in advance,” as in the best English comedies. “I’ve heard them dozens of times. But this time Johnson didn’t see it coming, he got his feet in the carpet. Let’s say the spell didn’t work on the audience.”
An understatement. In Downing Street, we are tearing our hair out, especially as the news channels broadcast live this speech described by his own advisers as “chaotic”. For some observers, this departure from the road is anything but anecdotal: Boris Johnson would be losing the thread of his mandate. The rambling rhetoric follows a string of embarrassing cases that recently put him in trouble and the polls are down for the first time in a year.
With an absolute majority of 80 seats in parliament and at least three years before the next elections, Bojo can certainly still bounce back. The fact remains that a crisis of confidence is gripping the Conservative Party, which is known to shamelessly get rid of its leaders deemed incompetent. Margareth Thatcher and Theresa May paid the price. Will Boris Johnson be next?
Until now, following a well-oiled mechanism, Boris Johnson and his Brexit Minister David Frost, blamed France on all the unfortunate subjects of the moment: fishing, Northern Irish protocol, migrants arriving by the thousands in Dover. This age-old game seemed to amuse both the population and the tabloids. At the end of October, London was even on the verge of triggering Article 16, a real legal bazooka, which would have canceled the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, when suddenly, a corruption case shook the walls of Downing Street.
No more posturing against France, there was fire in the house. On the morning of November 4, Boris Johnson forced his party to vote in favor of one of his relatives, MP Owen Patterson, whose parliamentary inquiry has just concluded that his paid consultancy activities violated parliamentary code (he defended the interests of two companies). Uncomfortable, even disgusted, about fifty elected conservatives rebelled against this iniquitous vote while the others obeyed the leader. Motion carried: Patterson will not be suspended for 30 days. A few hours later, in front of the general outcry and a shocked public opinion, Boris Johnson lets go of his friend and reconsiders his decision. He even proposed to ban all advisory activity to deputies from now on, a decision passed a few days later.
Despite this about-face, the episode left a very bitter taste within the Conservative Party. BoJo may have apologized to his deputies for “driving the car into the ravine”, some wonder if he has not definitely lost control. For the moment, the discontented party is offended on condition of anonymity. Like this Downing Street adviser: “Johnson is very good at campaigning, and very bad at administering. He does not trust anyone and changes his mind like his shirt.” And this other: “He has to get his act together. otherwise we’re going straight into the wall. ” Or again: “His inconstancy is the only constant with him.”
Political scientists and pollsters are beginning to observe a new phenomenon. Boris Johnson would suffer from his permanent large gap between his traditional electoral base, the affluent South of England, which does not want to hear about taxes and additional spending to pay for the health crisis, and his new supporters, the formerly disadvantaged North Labor, which he seduced with his promises of “Red Conservatism” and massive investments in public infrastructure. For Manchester University professor of political science Rob Ford, “the only thing that unites these two opposing electorates is Brexit. Otherwise, for the rest, one has to pay what the other wants. ” This bipolarity is reflected not only in the conservative parliamentary group but also in the composition of the government with a spendthrift Boris Johnson and his Minister of the Economy, Rishi Sunak, much more cautious.
After the Patterson affair, the news that the new high-speed network which is to open up the Midlands region was to be cut by a third for budgetary reasons infuriated the affected municipalities. The loss of TGV links to link Birmingham to Leeds and Leeds to Manchester, planned since 2010, was felt as a betrayal by this modest electorate in the north of England at the origin of Johnson’s triumph in the elections of December 2019. A House of Commons Conservative MP Huw Merriman was not kind: “There is a real danger in promising eternal sunshine, and leaving it to others to explain that it happens to get dark.”
And then there is “the migrant crisis”, or at least perceived as such by London and the English tabloids. In reality, the figures for asylum applications in Great Britain are down (less 16% compared to 2019) but by repeating that thanks to Brexit, migrants arriving through the Channel could be more easily returned to their country of origin. Originally, Boris Johnson and his Home Secretary Priti Patel shot each other in the foot. From now on, apart from the Dublin agreement, London can in reality no longer push back people who have come illegally to France. And the solutions put forward by the Johnson government to deal with their case seem fanciful to say the least. There was recently a question of parking migrants on disused oil platforms while waiting to rule on their fate, then Priti Patel considered sending them to Albania in “off-shore” sorting centers. But the Albanian ambassador in London categorically denies the information. Once again, Boris Johnson’s promises run up against the wall of reality.
More than polls, it is his own camp that the British Prime Minister will have to be wary of in the coming weeks. William Hague, former leader of the Conservative Party, has also given the la, by assenting, cryptic: “The government of Boris Johnson is not in a phase of final decline. It is just the impression it gives. ” A good hearer …