Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to change the subject Wednesday, hoping to replace the public image of himself as a heedless partygoer with that of a confident global statesman and a farsighted nation builder.
The prime minister highlighted a call with President Vladimir Putin of Russia to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. Hours earlier, Johnson’s government rolled out details of an ambitious, multiyear plan to spread prosperity, or “level up” neglected parts of the Midlands and north of England with more affluent London and the southeast.
But Johnson’s reset was eclipsed by news that three more Conservative Party lawmakers called for a no-confidence vote. It was further evidence that his political support was melting away amid the outcry over alcohol-fueled social gatherings in Downing Street that breached lockdown restrictions during the pandemic.
Johnson’s hectic day was meant to telegraph both Britain’s relevance on the world stage after Brexit and his commitment to the country’s rust belt, where voters in 2019 embraced his vow to “get Brexit done.” Their support propelled his Conservative Party to the greatest landslide since that of Margaret Thatcher in 1987.
Retaining those voters is critical for the party to stay in power. As Johnson’s political troubles have deepened, the “leveling up” project is no longer just a central pillar of his agenda; it is also Exhibit A in his case for why Tory lawmakers rattled by the scandal should not mount a leadership challenge against him.
The greater fear of many lawmakers, however, is the electoral fallout from an internal report on the parties, released in heavily redacted form Monday. The report painted an unflattering picture of Johnson’s leadership, citing a culture of excessive alcohol consumption by the prime minister’s Downing Street staff at parties, some of which he attended.
Downing Street has promised to eventually release the full report, by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, which is likely to reveal further damaging details. The British police are conducting their own review of the parties; they may soon question Johnson about his attendance and could slap him with a fine.
“The auguries are not good, given what we now know about how damning even the redacted Sue Gray report was,” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “This doesn’t look as if it is going away.”
Under normal circumstances, he said, the “leveling up” project would be a good-news announcement for the government, promising to revive struggling towns and cities with showcase projects, like cultural centers or rebuilt town squares, and long-term investments to improve transport links and education and to extend life expectancy.
“It’s a completely consensus policy, across British politics,” Travers said. “The opposition doesn’t oppose it — they just want more of it. But deindustrialization as an issue has gotten caught up in politics and populism.”
For Johnson, the “leveling up” initiative is perhaps the biggest of a string of domestic policy announcements, nicknamed “Operation Save Big Dog” by his political advisers, who hope it will project vigorous leadership and remind lawmakers why voters flocked to him.
But Johnson isn’t relying on domestic policy alone to save him. On Tuesday, he traveled to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He voiced solidarity with the Ukrainian people and warned that Britain would impose sanctions on Moscow as soon as “the first Russian toecap” crossed onto Ukrainian soil.
Johnson delivered a similar message to Putin by phone Wednesday. In a readout of the call, Downing Street said the prime minister warned Putin that “any further Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory would be a tragic miscalculation.”
But Russia took its own shots at Britain, and Johnson. A deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told Sky News that “British diplomacy has shown that it is absolutely worthless,” and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Putin would speak to anyone, even those who are “completely confused.”
In Kyiv, Johnson was dogged by questions about the Downing Street parties while, back in Britain, Conservative lawmaker Peter Aldous said he would call for a no-confidence vote. On Wednesday, three more Tories joined him: Gary Streeter, Anthony Mangnall and Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the select committee on defense in the House of Commons.
That brings the total number of publicly declared Tory dissidents to about a dozen. A total of 54 such requests are needed to trigger a vote. Because the process of submitting requests is confidential, no one knows the current total, but some political analysts have estimated that it could be 30 or more.
Many lawmakers are known to be unhappy in private. But some may be biding their time and gauging public sentiment, worried that a declaration of no-confidence in Johnson could risk a backlash among loyalist activists in their districts.
Others fret that, if they miscalculate and trigger a vote too soon, Johnson could survive it and bolster his position. He has shown an uncanny capacity to bounce back from scandals and setbacks.
Johnson’s critics have long dismissed “leveling up” as a slogan without a policy. But that critique changed Wednesday after the government published a lengthy document outlining plans for more city and regional mayors, along with lofty aspirations for skills training, public transportation and economic productivity.
While there was a broad welcome for the government’s wish list, critics lamented the modest scale of fiscal resources behind a project that some have likened to the rebuilding of East Germany after its reunification with the West.
Previous Labour-led governments had pursued many of these policies, with similar bench marks and timetables, critics and some analysts noted. After a Conservative-led government came to power in 2010, some of the worst-hit regions suffered years of cuts in public spending under a new austerity policy.
“A lot of this feels like going back to where we were then and admitting that a lot of what happened after that was a mistake,” said Jonathan Portes, an economist at Kings College London who worked in the Labour government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Some analysts praised the fact that the document set a time frame but added that its target of 2030 was too short to tackle deeply embedded economic and social problems.
“We are talking about a problem that is at least 100 years in the making; we are not going to solve it in eight years,” said Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at the Center for Cities, a research institute.
Nor are the fruits of the initiative guaranteed to win over wavering voters in struggling northern towns by the time of the next election, which must take place before the end of 2024, and many expect by next year.
“Voters are unlikely to see any difference on the ground by the time of the next election. The question is whether they acknowledge the political intent of the government and then lend them their vote once again, as a result,” Swinney said.
Whether Johnson will lead the Tories into that election is far from clear.