In normal times this would be game over. In the longer term it probably still is. The news that Boris Johnson has been fined for the breaching of lockdown rules he imposed on the nation ought ordinarily to be enough to finish him off. It is a shocking event. The fact that his chancellor, Rishi Sunak has been fined as well, however, complicates matters for his party.
MPs, not at Westminster to talk first hand, are still digesting the news and events may move fast. But there are a few reasons not to count on Johnson’s imminent departure.
The first is the local election campaign. However bad things are — and one should not doubt how serious this is, whatever efforts allies may make to play it down as nothing more than a parking ticket — there will be a general instinct not to spend the next three weeks campaigning against their leader when they ought to be out campaigning for their local councillors.
The second is the Ukraine conflict. In the first instance Johnson has, rightly, been seen by his side as having had a good crisis. The refugees issue is a blot on his record but on the big diplomatic and military calls he looks strong and leaderlike. Allies will use this both to argue against “giving a scalp to Putin” and also to portray the fines as a footling issue in comparison to the bigger global challenges.
Third, Johnson does not want to go and will fight to hang on. Finally, the fine for his chancellor means Sunak cannot succeed him. The chancellor’s ambitions were probably already fatally damaged by recent events and misjudgments, but this makes it impossible. Tories will want a clearer sense of who might take over if Johnson fell.
But while this gives Johnson hope of respite in the short term, he will know that it is only that. The damage done by this fine may well be irreparable. Voters are patently furious at the hypocrisy of ministers imposing fierce controls while thinking themselves above such rules. The record of this government is that the prime minister and chancellor have now been fined for breaching the rules; the health secretary had to resign over his non-adherence; and the former chief strategist flouted the first lockdown by driving half the length of the county. Voters may be more focused on issues around the cost of living, but they will neither forget nor forgive the breach.
This is not, contrary to the egregious efforts of some ministers to say otherwise, a small matter. At stake is the most basic principle of a democracy: that those who make the laws must also follow them. Worse still for Johnson, the public do not like being played for fools.
One thing which could speed Johnson’s demise would be for Sunak to take the honourable course now and resign. After a bruising week during which his and his wife’s tax affairs have come under scrutiny, it would do much to salvage his reputation for integrity, but there are no early signs this is likely. That he too has been fined is a gift for Labour, since he was meant to be the potential Tory leader who was different to Johnson. Now the opposition charge that this is a government which thinks the rules are for little people will be even more potent.
Johnson, a past-master at survival, may still fancy his chances of muddling through. If the local elections are not too disastrous, his MPs, with no obvious successor in place, may opt to prevaricate further.
But the collapse of trust in Johnson — a man never seen as a beacon of integrity — comes at a time when things are getting harder for voters economically. This latest development is the permission many need to abandon him once they are ready.
This is also a defining moment for Tory MPs. They have seen Johnson’s contempt for the rules infect his government and drag down so many of those who come close to him. Even his chancellor is now ensnared.
They would do well to look across the Atlantic to the fate of the Republican party. Ukraine may offer a reason for delay now, but at some point you have to ask how many abuses you are prepared to tolerate in the hope of victory and whether there is ever a point at which you draw the line.
The consequence therefore will be ever more efforts by the prime minister to appease his backbenchers — more red meat like the privatisation of Channel 4 and the harder line on trans rights. The pressure to cut taxes will grow, alongside demands to help further with the cost of living. This will become an even more short-termist and campaigning administration.
Ultimately however, the key to Johnson’s future is the opposition. For now, Tories believe the public is not convinced by Keir Starmer and far from enthused by Labour. As long as that seems true, they may gamble on sticking with Johnson, but the moment they see him as a permanent drag on their chances, he will be finished.