After weeks in which commentators had been predicting United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s removal from office for breaking the U.K.’s own COVID-era public health laws, the impression now is that he has survived — for the time being.
The news that Johnson will not face any further fines after his staff were issued with 126 “Fixed Penalty Notices” for COVID-19 breaches has been widely interpreted as proof of the prime minister’s talent for survival. As one commentator put it, “The [prime minister] has dodged a Partygate reckoning.”
As recently as this January it had seemed that the Conservative government might be doomed. The sense now is that Johnson has escaped, albeit with weakened authority.
In the U.K.’s political system, prime ministers are not directly elected but hold office only indirectly through the support of a majority of their own members of Parliament (MPs). Several of our recent prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Theresa May, were removed from office not because they had lost an election but because elections were looming and their own MPs expected them to lose.
Prime Minister Johnson’s support remains, from this perspective, very thin. The Conservatives have not led in any poll since December last year; with 148 national polls since then predicting losses for their party at the next general election.
Something then, it follows, will have to change. Either the opposition Labour Party’s lead will shrink and Johnson will be able to convert his weak administration into a durable regime, or Labour’s lead will grow to the point where the prospect of the Conservatives’ defeat at the next election seems so likely that his own MPs topple him. If the opposition’s present poll advantage persists, we could see Johnson’s regime end in a palace coup.
The prime minister appears to believe that his government can boost its popularity with a new plan — announced last month — to deport refugees arriving in Britain for processing overseas. The plan is that refugees will be deported to central Africa, forced to claim asylum there, and if successful, forcibly relocated not to Britain but to Rwanda. Johnson seems to believe that this flagship policy will bolster his support with wavering voters.
The U.K. is not a significant haven for refugees: My country holds 1 percent of the world’s total population and accepts fewer than 0.1 percent of the world’s refugees each year. However, the U.K. is a significant player on the world stage as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
By effectively abandoning the UN Refugee Convention, the U.K. proposes to send a signal to the rest of the world that refugees can be ignored. The Convention was signed in 1951. It was one of a series of international treaties signed with a common intention of protecting the world from a return to fascism. Its abandonment by the U.K. would be a small but ominously significant step in the global drift to authoritarianism.
At the press conference where he announced the Rwanda plan, Prime Minister Johnson suggested that it would face legal challenge from his opponents. “I know that this system will not take effect overnight,” he said. “We have such a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers who for years have made it their business to thwart removals and frustrate the government.”
Competent governments do not spend their time begging hostile lawyers to take them to court; nor do they predict, as Johnson seemed to do, that these lawyers will win. So why was the prime minister seemingly pleading with his opponents to sue him? And what are his opponents thinking, by saying that they will indeed take the scheme to court?
To understand both sides’ thinking, it is useful to look at the 2019 general election and the events which immediately preceded it. On August 28 that year, the government had announced that it was “proroguing” (i.e., suspending) Parliament, seemingly in order to force through a settlement of the country’s long-standing Brexit crisis without a vote. Four weeks later, our Supreme Court ruled that that measure has been unlawful.
This was the greatest constitutional crisis Britain had seen in 300 years, with ministers insisting that, according to the country’s “unwritten” constitution, they could govern so long as they had the queen’s approval. Unlike the U.S., the U.K. does not have a single constitutional document; we do have laws of very great or “constitutional” significance. However, they are dispersed over several different documents and there is no single, agreed, document setting out which of our laws have this unique importance.
By rejecting the doctrine that ministers could govern with the support of the Crown against the wishes of Parliament, the Supreme Court became the savior of the separation of powers in the U.K. political system and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.
But even though the 11 Supreme Court justices ruling unanimously against prorogation, the British public has had other ideas. Just three months after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Conservatives increased their seats by 48 votes, converting what had been a narrow minority government into a secure majority one. To make matters worse, a significant portion of the seats newly won by the Conservatives were rustbelt towns which had been taken for granted as Labour seats, representing places such as Redcar, never previously won by the Conservatives, or Leigh in Manchester, last lost by Labour in 1922.
The most common explanation for Johnson’s victory was that working-class voters had been attracted to a populist candidate promising to break all the rules. It is this story which Johnson likes to tell, and in that context, we can see why he is so willing to risk international criticism and play the role of a mid-Atlantic Donald Trump. Why should Johnson care if democracy suffers, so long as he continues to govern?
Johnson seems to see the prospect of a defeat in the courts over the Rwanda scheme as his opportunity to rerun the battles that brought about his victory in 2019. However, for his liberal critics, the context is more favorable now than three years ago. Johnson has been prime minister all this time. It is harder for him to pose as an outsider. Inflation in the U.K. is at 9 percent, the highest it has been in 40 years. Rising food and electricity prices are taking money out of the pockets of key groups of Conservative voters, including those who live on savings and the elderly.
Depressingly, the opposition Labour Party too often presents the issue here as one of competence, as if what is wrong with the proposal of deporting refugees to Rwanda is that the government has gone about this scheme in a shambolic fashion, failing to obtain any guarantees from Rwanda, and at excessive cost. This reflects Labour’s self-presentation as a party with no different politics than the Conservatives — only a much greater belief in the rules.
Yet the Conservatives are turning on refugees at the very moment that more British people are opening their homes to refugees than ever before. Since the start of the war on Ukraine, more than 50,000 people have sought temporary refuge in the U.K. An official website through which British people could register to offer their homes to new arrivals crashed, after people volunteered their assistance at the rate of 10,000 offers an hour.
This instinct of generosity — the belief of ordinary voters that refugees should be welcomed — is the force which could yet topple Johnson.