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Partygate may be one crisis too many for Boris Johnson

Under pressure: Boris Johnson at Downing Street (Photograph by Frank Augstein/AP/Pool)

Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, faces yet another week of political crisis even as his Government confronts new public-health challenges posed by the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

His leadership is being questioned at an especially delicate moment: Johnson needs support, from within his Conservative Party and the general public, to push through new rules and restrictions to prevent an outbreak that would strain health services.

London-based Bloomberg Opinion columnist Therese Raphael spoke with Bobby Ghosh about Johnson's quandary. This is a lightly edited version of their conversation.

Ghosh: I'm going to start by asking you to bring us up to speed with the scandals surrounding Boris Johnson.

Raphael: There has been a build-up of criticism and controversy around Johnson. He's never very far from controversy as a political leader, but this latest round came to a head over revelations that on December 18 last year, and quite possibly on a number of other occasions around that time, parties were held at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's official residence and place of work. These in contravention of lockdown rules at the time.

The initial reaction was that this was only a story in the "Westminster bubble" — a political story that doesn't really travel beyond the centre of power in Britain. The response from Downing Street was first to deny any parties had taken place, and then to say no rules were broken. This became problematic when a video surfaced showing a mock press conference in which then spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, joked about social distancing at a Downing Street party.

That just simply catapulted this into another stratosphere. For a lot of voters, it is a question of fairness: were the people making the rules abiding by the rules? And there are questions about whether the public has been misled. (Johnson has appointed his Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, to investigate whether rules were broken.)

This comes on the back of a month of relentless negative headlines. It started when a Conservative member of Parliament, Owen Paterson, was sanctioned for lobbying government on behalf of two private companies. Johnson approved a ham-fisted plan to try to save Paterson from being suspended from Parliament. The Government had to reverse itself over Paterson, who then resigned.

It's against this backdrop that we have Partygate, as it's being called, and these questions around the Prime Minister's grip on office.

Ghosh: There's also the backdrop of a rise in omicron rates, of what the Prime Minister described as a tidal wave of new cases. Going into the holiday season, there is now discussion in Downing Street about imposing new restrictions.

Raphael: Cases are doubling every two to three days. On Sunday evening, Johnson addressed the nation — which is quite unusual — to say that the Government would be extending booster shots to all adults 18 and under, and wanted them vaccinated with this third shot before the end of the year.

So that is up to a million shots a day. It’s an enormous number and there are real questions about whether the Government can actually meet that target.

And why did he announce that on Sunday night? Some speculate that it was to detract (sic) attention from the reports about the parties in Downing street.

We have heard today about the first death from the Omicron variant in Britain. There have been very few hospitalisations as yet, but the Government is clearly worried it could be a pretty grim winter. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is estimating between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths. The booster roll-out, although ahead of many other European countries, has been pretty sluggish compared to the early vaccination campaigns.

For the Government this is a pretty crucial time, when the politics and the public health messaging collide. Johnson needs support in his party to require people to have vaccine certificates, say, for getting into large venues like concerts and sporting events. This has provoked an almighty backlash from many Conservative lawmakers who see it as a slippery slope to the abridgement of liberties. There's going be a vote in the Commons on Tuesday on these rules, and a large number of MPs may rebel.

Ghosh: This is a particularly awkward time for the Prime Minister's personal standing to be weakened by scandal when there's dissension in the ranks. That provokes closer attention to his suitability as the leader of the party.

Raphael: The Conservative Party is extremely good at winning elections. They are quite transactional when it comes to choosing candidates and leaders who can do that. And it's not clear to me that there is a politician in the party with anything like the stature of Boris Johnson, and certainly not with his election-winning record. I think they'll be very reluctant to switch horses now.

I think the preference for many would be to see Johnson clean house, to try and prevent the succession of own goals that has weakened him and the Tory brand.

Remember, this party has been in power now for well over a decade. And although it has changed enormously under Johnson and since Brexit, there will come a point when voters say it's time to try something else. I don't think they're there yet. Maybe some, but not a critical mass.

And then there's the Labour Party, which is benefiting from the chaos in Downing Street. But it's more a case of the Tories losing traction than Labour gaining at this point. I think there needs to be a real switch, where voters feel confident in Labour's management of the economy, its ideas for public health and other issues, before we see a real threat to Johnson’s ability to hold on to power at the next election.

Ghosh: At this stage of the Omicron surge around the world, it seems like every government is looking at every other government for lessons of what to do. Britain has held itself up as an example, in terms of the of Covid-19 response, for others to follow. It will be watched very closely as the Government introduces new rules and restrictions.

Raphael: There were two pandemic response periods. The first was an unmitigated disaster. Britain's death rate was among the worst anywhere in the world. The Government would announce policies one week and reverse itself in the next week. It was complete chaos.

But then we got to the point where vaccines became available and the National Health Service rolled them out; that was hugely successful, though I would say that the second dose of vaccinations was a little bit less successful. Britain has taken its time in deciding whether to vaccinate children.

But the Government has got better at responding to the science and the medical advice than it was in the first couple of waves. And there is a degree of public trust in that. So even though there’s anger over Partygate, there is still trust in the scientific and medical advisors that are feeding into government. That's led to a fairly high level of compliance.

What happens going forward in January, February is enormously important. That's not necessarily because of anything the Government will do, but whether the NHS can withstand the onslaught of Covid cases, flu cases and work through the backlog with the now nearly six million people waiting for surgeries and treatments.

The emergency room wait times are in some areas pretty horrific. People are waiting a long time for ambulances. There's been a big drop in diagnosis for cancer. All of these things are building up.

The Government's decision to tighten the restrictions before Christmas has everything to do with the NHS. And that's an issue that society as a whole will have to face, whether this model of taxpayer-funded healthcare can cope with kinds of stresses we're seeing in a pandemic — a pandemic that may go on.

Ghosh: As you said earlier, the first death from Omicron in Britain has now been reported, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is talking about the possibility a huge death toll through the winter.

Raphael: We have to bear in mind that modelling is only as good as the data put into it. Right now, the data is mainly coming from South Africa. We also have some pretty sophisticated defences coming on stream. There are of course vaccines and boosters. We also have a range of both antiviral treatments and monoclonal antibody treatments, all of which help us protect the most vulnerable people from severe illness. That's good news.

And finally, we have rapid testing. Every Christmas drinks or party invitation I have received in the past couple of weeks has come with an addendum: please take a test before you show up.

Here comes the caveat: the tests now seem to be in short supply. People in some places are struggling to get them, though the Government denied Monday that there is a supply issue.

It will be a problem for the Government if people can't test themselves.

Ghosh: I was living in London when the vaccines were first rolled out. And as you say, it went remarkably well. There was enthusiasm from the general public to get themselves vaccinated. What explains the tailing off of that enthusiasm? Why is there not the same kind of enthusiasm with boosters, especially since there is alarm over Omicron? Is it because people just feel, We have already been vaccinated and will be okay. Is it because the perception around Omicron is that it is virulent but not as fatal as previous variants?

Raphael: I think it's a combination of both those things. Pretty much all of the restrictions that we were under — and they were quite onerous restrictions — were lifted in July, and then it was a free-for-all.

People were pretty tired of living in a pandemic world where they had to wear masks everywhere, where the rules were constantly changing. As hospitalisations dropped dramatically and the death rate dropped, the general perception was that we'd learnt to live with the virus.

The other factor was that government messaging was completely confusing. Boris Johnson wanted to move beyond the pandemic. He wanted to focus on his great infrastructure spending project, on growing the economy, on trade deals, on the post-Brexit order. He wanted a good news story. That's his nature as a politician: he's at his strongest when delivering an optimistic message.

So the Government really dropped the ball in terms of pushing people to get boosters and reminding people that we may be living with the virus, but it ain't over yet.

Now there's talk about introducing new restrictions. The Education Secretary has not ruled out school closures. They have not ruled out further measures before Christmas to limit gathering. This combination of weariness, complacency and poor government messaging has left Britain on the back foot as Omicron spreads.

And now we're going into what could be a very difficult winter.

Ghosh: Has the more urgent messaging of the past week had some effect? Are you seeing more people masking? Are people are beginning to take this more seriously?

Raphael: Yeah, absolutely. You could see it immediately on public transport and in shops. We're seeing people now rethinking some of their plans, particularly in indoor settings and gatherings in homes with lots of people. I think there's more receptivity among the general public to the Government saying maybe we spoke too soon in saying you should celebrate Christmas as it was before the pandemic.

Behavioural change has always been ahead of government policy. This was true as the virus hit in 2020: even before Johnson announced that first lockdown, the streets were deserted. People were already staying home from offices. Now, once more, people are not waiting for the Government to tell them what they should do.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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Published December 16, 2021 at 7:58 am (Updated December 15, 2021 at 4:36 pm)

Partygate may be one crisis too many for Boris Johnson

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