In one of his campaigns to be mayor of London, Boris Johnson explained the “dead cat trick”: if the news is negative, throw a “dead cat” on the table – some more manageable controversy – so that people leave talk about the original scandal and get distracted by this other topic instead. The problem with the current British Prime Minister is that it is difficult to know if he has robbed a pet cemetery, or if he has simply lost control of the Government, immersed in a chain of scandals that threaten to sink his career.
This Sunday, Johnson announced the return of restrictions to England after five months of “freedom” in the face of the growing wave of infections caused by the omicron variant. The new version of the covid already accounts for 40% of the new cases detected in London, and the number of infections is doubling every two days, according to the ‘premier’. The solution is to accelerate the booster vaccines campaign, for which he ordered by surprise to suspend all health appointments for the next few days, so that all family doctors dedicate themselves to giving vaccines without stopping to be able to reach January with all the protected population.
Added to this are several other restrictions, such as the requirement for a covid passport -with the requirement of receiving three doses- to enter nightclubs, crowded closed spaces or open spaces with more than 4,000 people; the requirement to wear masks in closed places or the recommendation to work from home. The typical list of security measures that Johnson himself had repealed at a stroke last July.
This new health crisis, however, comes at a bad time for the prime minister. Johnson’s problem is his great political weakness due to the list of scandals he has accumulated in recent months. First it was the attempt to save one of his deputies, Owen Paterson, after a conviction for corruption, when he ordered his party to vote in favor of repealing the committee that sanctions parliamentarians who break the law. And this week has been the ‘Partygate’, an especially harmful case when requesting restrictions.
The story is as simple as it is catastrophic. Last year, Downing Street organized several Christmas parties despite the fact that the country was in strict confinement from the second wave and the parties were prohibited. At the moment there are indications of seven celebrations, and evidence that Johnson participated in one of them. Her press officer, Alegra Stratton, has resigned after leaking a video from December 2020 in which she joked about one of the parties. Johnson flatly denied at first that any party had been held, later correcting his claim that he did not know of its existence. After proving that he did know of at least one, his new denial is that he did not participate directly in the meeting, but only intervened for Zoom without leaving his office.
The blow to his credibility has been fully felt in the polls, which show horrible numbers for the president: the Labor Party leads the intention to vote by more than 6 points, Johnson’s approval is at an all-time low, and a majority of the citizens ask for his resignation for having celebrated parties while the rest of the country was confined. A situation that makes it very difficult to defend the new restrictions now.
The result has been a break in his party. At the moment, 71 deputies, a fifth of their parliamentary group, have announced that they will vote against the restrictions, considering them “draconian” and “dictatorial”. The approval of the measures is thus in the hands of Labor, who this Tuesday will make their own speech to the nation on the BBC, presenting their leader, Keir Starmer, as the “shadow prime minister” who has the credibility that the official owner has already cremated.
The combination of all these crises may erupt this Thursday, in the by-election to replace Paterson after his resignation. The constituency has voted Conservatives for two centuries, and Paterson garnered more than 60% of the vote in 2019. A loss there, as the bookies predict, would be a severe blow to a prime minister who won the leadership of his party promising to be a winner.
On the rebound, negotiations with the EU have also been affected. Last Friday, the Government reversed some of its toughest demands on Northern Ireland, such as that the EU Court of Justice cease to have jurisdiction over the province, which remain in the Common Market. Johnson’s weakness makes very risky to unleash a battle with Brussels. The idea that was had until recently was that the battle would return in January. The question now is whether the storm of dead cats that shakes Downing Street will end up being a gift to the EU.