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Boris Johnson’s awful year is only getting worse

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LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II famously endured her annus horribilis back in 1992.

Two decades on, and it’s Her Majesty’s 14th prime minister, Boris Johnson, who finds himself struggling through surely the worst year of his rollercoaster career.

In a video message last New Year’s Eve, a besuited Johnson had urged Britons to “make 2022 a happy new year.” But there have been few smiling moments since for the Conservative leader — and 2022 is far from done with him yet.

POLITICO took a look back on his year so far — and what’s still ahead.

January: Partygate explodes

The rumbling so-called Partygate scandal got serious in mid-January when Labour leader Keir Starmer called on Johnson to quit after the PM admitted attending a “bring your own booze” gathering during COVID lockdown in the Downing Street garden.

And all hell broke loose at the end of the month when the Metropolitan Police — which had declined to look into the allegations thus far — suddenly announced a formal investigation into potential criminal activity in No. 10. Serious questions began to be asked about whether Johnson would last the year.

February: Key aides depart

The Downing Street drama went up another notch in February with the shock resignation of Munira Mirza, Johnson’s head of policy and one of his closest and most longstanding aides.

Mirza’s departure precipitated a wider clear-out of senior Downing Street staff, including the PM’s director of communications Jack Doyle, his chief of staff Dan Rosenfield and principal private secretary Martin Reynolds — something No. 10 presented as a “reset” of Johnson’s government. It did little to stem the tide of bad news.

March: Budget flops … and Rishi flops too

You know a prime minister is in trouble when the flop of a multi-billion-pound government spending plan is viewed as a little light relief in No. 10. But Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spring financial statement was widely seen as too cautious, given the economic headwinds — and suddenly Johnson’s heir apparent found his popularity begin to slump.

The prime minister’s glee at the imminent downfall of his main leadership rival may have been tempered somewhat, however, by the obvious wider discontent at his government.

April: Having a fine old time

In April, Scotland Yard began issuing fines for those found guilty of breaking lockdown rules by partying in Downing Street. And humiliatingly for Johnson, both he and his wife Carrie were issued £50 charges for an illegal birthday party in the Cabinet room back in 2020. Johnson apologized and paid up, vowing things would change.

Back in the real world, Britons saw their energy bills soar by a record 54 percent.

May: Election losses and the Sue Gray report

During the local elections in May, the Conservatives suffered large losses of nearly 500 councilors in England, confirming the belief of some jittery Tory MPs that their leader was losing his electoral appeal.

The conclusion of the Metropolitan Police’s Partygate probe offered some unexpected respite, with no further fines for Johnson himself. But the toe-curling findings — and photographs — within Gray’s report, published the following week, triggered a further slew of letters of no confidence in Johnson from Tory MPs.

June: Tory confidence vote

Facing an internal confidence vote is normally the beginning of the end for a Conservative prime minister. And Johnson won Monday’s ballot much more narrowly than expected, with more than two in five of his MPs voting against him — a worse result than those suffered by past doomed leaders Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Theresa May.

As the halfway point of the year approaches, Johnson will now have to reckon with an emboldened opposition inside his own party if he is to fight the next election as Tory leader.  

A red hot summer

Rebels start to organize

The confidence vote forced Tory leadership hopefuls, such as Jeremy Hunt and Penny Mordaunt, out of the shadows. Though neither made a formal bid for the top job, Tory rebels now feel they at least have potential leaders to coalesce around.

Hunt has become the most explicit challenger, saying on Monday that ministers “are not giving the British people the leadership they deserve,” and that the Conservatives must “change or lose.” There is no turning back from that — and it means there is now a senior Tory openly auditioning for Johnson’s job.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON APPROVAL RATING

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Brexit eruption … and resignation watch

Johnson is gearing up to publish controversial laws next week to override swathes of the Brexit deal’s protocol for trade between Northern Ireland and the island of Great Britain — much to the dismay of Tory moderates worried about the impact on the U.K.’s international standing.

While Brexit-voting MPs will enjoy the red meat on offer, the prime minister runs the risk of triggering high-profile and damaging resignations from ministers — and even senior government lawyers — concerned about the legality of the move.

By-election bloodbaths … with more looming?

The Conservatives are braced for a double-whammy of losses on June 23, when they defend two constituencies — Wakefield, and Tiverton and Honiton — in blockbuster by-elections.

Should both seats be lost, it would demonstrate to nervous Tory MPs that the party is now bleeding support in both Brexit-voting, working-class towns that voted for the party for the first time in 2019, and in leafy, affluent rural areas with enormous Tory majorities.

And ominously for No. 10, there could be further by-elections this year. One Tory MP has already been told to stay away from parliament after he was arrested on suspicion of rape. And it emerged this week that Tory MP Alok Sharma, the president for COP26 climate talks, is in the running to be the U.N.’s new climate chief. If he were to take the role, he would vacate a narrow majority in his seat in Reading West.

Reshuffle kerfuffle

An intervention by former Treasury Minister Jesse Norman this week demonstrated the clear dangers of any government reshuffle.

Norman, sacked from his job last fall, delivered a scathing assessment of the government on Monday as he very publicly submitted a letter of no confidence in the prime minister.

Johnson is nevertheless reported to be planning a reshuffle later this summer, with allies urging him to reward his most loyal supporters and sack ministers who have failed to give him their full backing. Doing so would create more potentially dangerous new enemies.

Autumn of our lives

1922 rule changes

Though under current party rules, Johnson now cannot face another confidence vote for a year, there is nothing to stop the executive of the 1922 committee of Conservative MPs — which oversees the process — from changing that stipulation.

Only three years ago, a bid to change those very rules in order to oust Theresa May swiftly precipitated her resignation as prime minister.

Backbench leader Graham Brady, who has bad blood with Johnson after No. 10 quietly tried to oust him as 1922 committee chair, left the door open to a future rule change this week. “Of course, it is technically possible that laws can be changed in the future,” Brady told Times Radio.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson must face an emboldened opposition inside his own party if he is to fight the next election as Tory leader | Daniel Leal – WPA Pool/Getty Images

Parliamentary inquiry

The last remaining probe into Partygate is perhaps the most dangerous — a parliamentary inquiry into whether Johnson misled the House of Commons with his public statements on the scandal.

The inquiry is being carried out by the Commons privileges committee, made up of four Tory MPs, two Labour ones and one Scottish National Party MP. Three of the Tory MPs are independent-minded members of the 2019 intake, and in theory, it would only take one rebel to tip the balance away from the prime minister.

Should the group conclude that Johnson misled the Commons, it would officially be a resigning matter under the ministerial code. Whether the prime minister chooses to adhere to that code is another matter.

Winter of discontent

Budget day

One thing Tory MPs are genuinely united on is a desire to see tax cuts — and Johnson promised to introduce them in an attempt to keep the number of rebels down in Monday’s confidence vote.

But come the autumn budget — actually expected between October and early December — he will find himself in a dangerous position, with heavy pressure from his party to slash taxes at a time of low economic growth, while also spending more to help families deal with the rising cost of living. It will be impossible to please everyone.

Bills, bills, bills

While the government considers how to manage the economy, in October Britain’s energy regulator will announce yet another huge rise in energy bills, to reflect a rise in wholesale gas prices.

Tory and Labour strategists are united in their belief that the rising cost of living will be the central issue of the next general election. Johnson’s government has already faced stinging criticism that it is not doing enough to mitigate its impact on ordinary people.  

So if Partygate doesn’t finish him off, there is a real chance that rising prices will.

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