- Conservative MPs say Ukraine war means prime minister secure
- Police find Johnson and Rishi Sunak broke pandemic rules
Boris Johnson is known for riding out scandals that would sink most British politicians. It appears to be happening again.
Just weeks ago, news that Johnson had been fined by police for breaking the coronavirus rules set by his own government -- the first sitting prime minister known to have broken the law -- would likely have ended his premiership. Members of his ruling Conservatives had lost patience over a series of missteps that had dragged the party down in the polls.
But much has changed in the interim. The premier has seen his ratings rise over his response to the war in Ukraine, while Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak -- seen as Johnson's most likely successor -- is embroiled in a row over his family's tax affairs, and has also been fined by the police.
Tory MPs told Bloomberg the appetite for a leadership change has evaporated.
"Because of Ukraine, things have moved on," Robert Goodwill, a veteran Conservative Member of Parliament since 2005, said in an interview. Though people had a "tough time" with coronavirus rules, forbidden from visiting sick relatives or attending funerals -- Johnson's position is still safe, he said.
Three other Tory MPs, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, also said the Ukraine war had secured Johnson's position and means he won't be removed from his post. A police fine has long been factored in, one said.
"I will not say or do anything that will give one crumb of comfort to the man creating war crimes in Ukraine," Tory MP Roger Gale, who has previously called for Johnson's resignation, told ITV, linking questions on the "partygate" fines to the UK's response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion.
The dramatic shift in party mood is just the latest example of events falling Johnson's way, a familiar pattern in his career. It includes receiving credit as Mayor of London for the feel-good Olympic Games held in the capital, even though they were won during his predecessor's tenure, and picking the winning side in the Brexit referendum -- after famously drafting opinion pieces supporting both arguments -- that ultimately carried him to 10 Downing Street.
His political acumen is also key. The Conservative Party chose him as leader because Johnson can connect with voters Tories don't normally attract. The huge Parliament majority secured in 2019 came as swathes of Labour heartlands switched allegiance.
Johnson's disregard for normal politics has also been popular, helping him shrug off a slew scandals throughout his career, from an ethics row over the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment to allegations of an affair with American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri while he was London mayor.
All of which has come into play over "partygate," the name given to the allegations of rule-breaking parties held in Downing Street by the British media that brought Johnson to the brink. With Tory calls for his resignation reaching a crescendo, Johnson went on a charm offensive, promising a reset of his administration and asking MPs to wait for the findings of an internal inquiry passing judgment.
That timeframe was derailed when London's Metropolitan Police, which had resisted investigating the allegations, finally started a probe in late January. That delayed the publication of senior civil servant Sue Gray's full findings on the gatherings -- an interim report slammed "failures of leadership and judgment" -- and gave Johnson time to get more Tory MPs on side.
Yet the unforeseeable wildcard was Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Johnson, who wrote a biography of wartime leader Winston Churchill, has tried to put the UK at the forefront of the Western response. His sudden visit to Kyiv to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was well received in the UK press.
Johnson's approval rating among Tory grassroots turned positive for the first time in three months in early April in a survey by the influential Conservative Home website. Conservative MPs appear to have had the same reaction.
That's left opposition parties to call on Johnson to quit. They say he misled the House of Commons when he assured lawmakers that coronavirus rules had been followed in Downing Street -- a resignation offense.
Without Tory MPs taking the same view, though, the threat is diminished. During a pooled broadcast interview on Tuesday, the prime minister said he had spoken "in completely good faith" and would not step down.
Johnson and Sunak both said they had paid their fines, though neither they nor the police said how much they were. The level of so-called fixed penalty notices for coronavirus rule breaches varied during the pandemic, but most recently started at 100 pounds ($130). The fines do not carry a criminal record
To be sure, given Johnson's career history "partygate" is unlikely to be his last near miss. The police have said their probe is not over and more fines may be issued, while the birthday gathering that triggered the penalty is not the only event Johnson has acknowledged attending.
Looming Elections By far the biggest threat is the local elections in London and across much of the UK on May 5, which will take place against a backdrop of a major cost-of-living crisis. A bad result may yet make Tory MPs wonder if Johnson retains his winning touch and is still the best person to lead them into the next general election due by 2024.
By far the biggest threat is the local elections in London and across much of the UK on May 5, which will take place against a backdrop of a major cost-of-living crisis. A bad result may yet make Tory MPs wonder if Johnson retains his winning touch and is still the best person to lead them into the next general election due by 2024.
Still, it's Johnson's Downing Street neighbor, Sunak, who finds himself under the most Tory pressure. Already facing criticism for not doing enough to help the poorest Britons, he's become embroiled in a row over his wife's tax affairs and the revelation he held a US green card while in office.
Then on Tuesday, Sunak confirmed he was also fined for being at Johnson's birthday gathering, which he's previously said was held at a regular meeting to discuss the government's pandemic response. The chancellor on Tuesday issued a statement offering an "unreserved apology."
Weeks ago when the prime minister was under pressure to resign over the party allegations, Sunak was regarded by many Tory MPs as a shoo-in to replace him. Now the chancellor has become caught up in "partygate," that's no longer on the cards. And Johnson looks to have survived again.