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Newton Emerson: Boris Johnson’s fate and politics of the union

In Northern Ireland the Prime Minister’s destiny is seen in the context of Brexit in particular

Details of lockdown parties in Downing Street are being leaked drip by drip because British prime minister Boris Johnson's enemies, chief among them his former adviser Dominic Cummings, know a sudden flood would not sweep him away.

The PM would simply brazen it out, as he has done with every revelation so far – a process that takes about two weeks.

December 19th's wine and cheese garden party photograph led to confident predictions of Johnson's imminent demise. By the start of this week he appeared to have put it behind him. December 8th's resignation of former press secretary Allegra Stratton followed the same pattern.

Now that we are at the start of another brief cycle of outrage, it is important to keep a perspective, or more correctly to see it from Johnson’s perspective. If he lies low for a few days, in every sense of that term, he has every reason to believe the scandal will fade away. There will, of course, be a gradual accumulation of political toxicity and a slow puncture in his poll ratings, but those are inevitable in any term of office.


It is telling that the strongest condemnations of Johnson from within his own party have come from Scotland

Everything we know about Johnson indicates he will sit tight. With the pandemic hopefully in its final stages, he only has to survive for a month or two for the agenda to completely move on.

It is telling that the strongest condemnations of Johnson from within his own party have come from Scotland. Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, says the prime minister must resign for attending the "despicable" bring-your-own bottle Downing Street party. Ruth Davidson, Ross's high-profile predecessor, made similarly damning remarks.

Scottish Tories see Johnson's unpopularity outside England as a gift to the SNP and a threat to the union itself. They have profound reasons to hope for his downfall, but this will not be shared by the bulk of the party in Westminster. Of the 361 Conservative MPs, 341 represent English constituencies. Their concern is whether Johnson has lost his magic gift to unite England, by charming voters north and south. Focus groups show the prime minister's performative fogginess, affected as a very conscious Englishness, leads people across all social classes and regions in England to relate to him. This has cleaved open a cultural distinction with the rest of the UK, where he comes across like an implausible character from a Richard Curtis movie.

The pandemic ended in England last Spring, psychologically if not epidemiologically. Pubs have installed swear boxes for any customer who mentions it – a more English dismissal of the subject could scarcely be imagined. This works strongly in Johnson's favour. He will not say "we all partied", probably, but he could get away with his own take on that Celtic Tiger shamelessness.

In Northern Ireland, Johnson's fate is seen through the politics of the union in general and Brexit in particular. Hopes and fears are mixed on both sides. Sinn Féin's youth wing felt the need to tweet this week that no Tory should be governing Ireland, in case republicans are tempted to think any Tory would be an improvement.

The DUP's is far more deeply conflicted. It put Johnson in office by withdrawing support for Theresa May over the backstop, only for him to agree the protocol on a stroll with Leo Varadkar. Despite that extraordinary betrayal, the DUP sees Johnson as the best hope of mitigating the protocol, if only because he is equally unreliable in his promises to Brussels.

Other unionists and all nationalists have told the DUP it will be betrayed again. Although that is almost inevitable, the matter is still not straightforward.

There is certainly no guarantee a replacement would be any better

Johnson really believes in the union, in as much as he believes in anything. He may be kidding himself and kidding everyone else on what he can deliver, but for many unionists this hardly seems worse than usual. There is certainly no guarantee a replacement would be any better.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the favourite to succeed Johnson, was profiled in the Financial Times in April 2020. The paper quoted a Conservative colleague saying: "I remember discussing the future of the union with Rishi and he argued that England should break away. He was advocating the end of the UK because it doesn't make financial sense to him. He doesn't have any love for the institution and I suspect he looks at it as he looks at anything: what's the profit?"

Sunak swiftly denied the report.

“There are some comments about the union falsely attributed to me in the FT today,” he posted on Twitter.

"My parents moved to the United Kingdom, not England, because the union represented an idea of opportunity. I am a strong believer in our union of four nations. Hope that clarifies that!"

These are words to have any unionist reaching for the bottle.