UK Politics: Is Boris Johnson's premiership on borrowed time?

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson's approval ratings are crashing
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Paul Krishnamurty reports on a significant market move against Boris Johnson's long-term future, in the wake of fast deteriorating polls...

"If Johnson was the man for a particular moment, MPs may consider Rishi Sunak is the man required for a crisis."

To reiterate the obvious, political fortunes change faster than ever. Seven months on from securing the biggest Tory majority, and two months on from attaining near 'national treasure' status whilst recovering from coronavirus, we need to pay serious attention to the betting about Boris Johnson's exit date.

Johnson rated likelier than not to be gone by 2024

This market is moving. From substantial sums being matched at [1.4] and below, the PM is now rated less than 50% likely to still be in post by 2024 at odds of [2.04].

To be fair, there is little suggestion of imminent change. Odds of [7.8] about available a 2020 exit and Johnson is rated 64% likely to still be in post two years from now, in July 2022, at odds of [1.53]. Nevertheless, the betting trends reflect rising speculation that he won't lead the Tories into the next election.

It comes in the wake of a terrible news cycle for the government. Their management of the Covid crisis is derided around the world and coming in for ever more criticism at home. Less than a third of the public approve of their measures.

The Dominic Cummings lockdown scandal may have at least exacerbated two problems. First, it squandered much public goodwill. Second, it aggravated a media who were already revolting over their treatment.

Multiple reports of unease amongst colleagues

More significant are the criticisms personal to Johnson, emanating from friends, rather than enemies. More than a week ago Andrew Neil reported unease among Tory MPs. Last weekend's press saw that repeated by credible Westminster insiders Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times and Andrew Rawnsley at The Observer.

This was before the humiliating u-turn over free school meals, in response to Marcus Rashford's campaign. Before Johnson stretched credulity by claiming he hadn't heard of the campaign until Tuesday. Before the Rashford story gathered steam, Johnson had already fallen 30% behind Keir Starmer in terms of aggregate approvals.

Johnson's approval ratings have collapsed with rapid speed. Throughout April and May, the PM's ratings were ranging between +20 to +40 positive - in keeping with the 'national unity' boost enjoyed by most world leaders. Now they're negative, by up to 7%.

Tories still ahead in polls

That scale doesn't apply so clearly to reflect the Conservatives. Whilst they have fallen from heights that would be deemed extraordinary during that peak period, they are still leading by up to 8%, on a similar tally to that achieved last December. Considering how bad the news cycle has been, they will be encouraged. The entrenched divide that has hardened since Brexit persists.

This may, eventually, lead Tory MPs to conclude their leader is no longer an asset, or even that he's become a liability. They picked him to win an election - to see off the threat of Nigel Farage, deliver Brexit and beat Jeremy Corbyn. Those particular jobs are done.

In electing him, they put well-known concerns about Johnson's credibility, work ethic and trustworthiness to one side. Lest we forget, just a few months before becoming leader, he was weak in the betting as few expected enough MPs to back him.

Part-time PM image is taking root

His record in office has hardly dispelled those doubts. Shipman's earlier exclusive that the PM missed five COBRA meetings shocked the media but didn't cut through to a public desperately craving sound advice and unity. The footage of Johnson boasting about shaking hands in a hospital was overshadowed by his illness.

Now we read that he's still missing COBRA meetings, leaving the unelected Cummings in charge. The image of a part-time PM - or worse, a puppet controlled by his sinister Rasputin-esque advisor - is taking root.

Such perceptions can be very hard to turn around and Johnson will probably have to do so against the backdrop of a crashed economy, with millions of jobs lost and a housing crash.

There is also the prospect of at least a very hard Brexit to factor in. If that goes down badly - and polls suggest support for Brexit is falling - it must surely rebound on the man who led the referendum campaign and trade negotiations.

Popular Sunak may prove more suitable for a crisis

Many feel they have a ready-made replacement. Rishi Sunak is still enjoying a honeymoon after four months as Chancellor. Not only did he win major public support - including from non-Tory voters - for the furlough scheme, but his confident, articulate manner has been very well received.

Apparently colleagues are very impressed by his intellect and focus at Zoom meetings too. If Johnson was the man for a particular moment, MPs may consider Sunak is the man required for a crisis. A details man for serious times.

Sunak remains very popular in the betting, at [4.9] to be Next Conservative Leader and [6.0] to be Next Prime Minister. Short odds, considering how long we might have to wait for a contest and how quickly reputations can fold, but there's no question that he is well-placed.

The Conservative Party are famously ruthless towards unpopular leaders. They sacked Theresa May last year, Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 and Margaret Thatcher in 1990. If the backbench 1922 Committee decide Johnson is a liability, they will act.


Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

UK - Party Leaders: UK - Party Leaders (Exit Dates - Boris Johnson)

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Tuesday 31 December, 11.59pm

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