'No place like home' for Boris Johnson returning to sleaze and strikes in Britain

British PM Boris Johnson stole the line from The Wizard of Oz to counter media suggestions he was avoiding the day job. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - After an eight-day summit dash from Rwanda to Spain via Germany's Bavarian Alps, Mr Boris Johnson told reporters he was "keen" to get back to Britain.

"There's no place like home," the British prime minister said in Madrid, stealing the famous line from "The Wizard of Oz" to counter media suggestions he was avoiding the day job.

In reality, though, it's easy to see why more time abroad might have appealed. The Britain that Mr Johnson arrived back to late on Thursday (June 30) is fractured, with striking rail staff, angry doctors and restless teachers fuelling the sense that a cost-of-living crisis is spiralling out of control.

While Mr Johnson was away, his ruling Conservative Party suffered two more humiliations at the hands of voters, the pound continued this year's slump against the dollar and more data showed the economy is getting worse.

To cap it all, hours after he landed, Mr Johnson found himself embroiled in yet another scandal when Chris Pincher - who the premier appointed in February to be his political enforcer - resigned as deputy chief whip over an incident involving excessive drinking. On Friday, he was suspended from the Conservative parliamentary party, pending an investigation.

The Sun newspaper reported he allegedly assaulted two fellow guests at a private club. Pincher did not respond to a request for comment, but said in his resignation letter he'd "embarrassed" himself and "caused upset" to others.

Sleaze is back

The incident puts the focus back on sleaze and misconduct at a dangerous time for Mr Johnson, who last month barely survived a confidence vote that was triggered at least in part by the furore over illegal parties in Downing Street during the pandemic.

Mr Johnson became the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law when he was fined for attending one of the events, and the long-running saga has cost the Tories.

The prime minister had faced calls to return from Rwanda early when the results of two special elections - both triggered by scandals involving sitting Tory MPs - were won by opposition parties. Tory Chairman Oliver Dowden quit in the aftermath, saying "someone must take responsibility."

For the more than 40 per cent of Tory MPs who tried to remove him last month, clearly it's Mr Johnson they want to take the fall for the government's slumping popularity.

Survival battle

But the rebels' options are limited because Mr Johnson is immune from another challenge for a year. In his absence, there was chatter among Tory MPs about stacking the influential 1922 Committee - which organises confidence votes - with his critics, to try to change the rules to allow a fresh ballot.

In the meantime, the prime minister is limping on, and the next crunch moment may be when a Parliament committee rules - likely in the fall - on whether he lied to MPs over partygate, which is regarded as a resignation offence.

None of which is helping the government tackle the disarray. Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey said on Wednesday the economy is probably weakening earlier and deeper than others.

Inflation is at a four-decade high and set to hit double figures later in the year, triggering workers' unrest and threatening what the media has dubbed a "summer of discontent".

Commuters at Liverpool Street station during heavily reduced rail services on the third day of national rail strikes in London on June 23, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

More strikes

The biggest rail strikes in three decades took place the same week Mr Johnson left for Rwanda. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers organising the stoppages has warned of further action if their demands are not met.

Trial lawyers have also been on strike, while doctors, teachers and firefighters are threatening them. This week, Postal workers voted to take industrial action, and on Thursday, BT Group's unionised workers voted in favour of the company's first national walkout in more than three decades.

It leaves the government under pressure to match public sector pay rises with inflation, especially for professions such as nurses, teachers and doctors who were applauded for their service during the pandemic.

Polls show the public is sympathetic to striking workers - but the government argues restraint on pay is necessary to prevent an inflationary spiral.

'World king'

It's all far removed from Mr Johnson's eight days of summitry - an unusually long trip for a British prime minister.

The man whose childhood ambition was to be "world king," thrives on the international scene, and used the meetings to emphasise British leadership in helping Ukraine - including announcing an extra £1 billion (S$1.69 billion) of military support for President Volodymyr Zelensky's government.

Whenever journalists travelling with the premier tried to focus on his domestic woes, Mr Johnson's team sought to bring their attention back to Russia's war in Ukraine.

Mr Johnson seemed to relish his stay at the Group of Seven summit in Germany, getting up early to swim in the lake at the luxury Schloss Elmau retreat, where he was joined by his wife Carrie and their six-month baby girl Romy.

British PM Boris Johnson with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Schloss Elmau retreat in southern Germany on June 26, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Mocking Putin

He bantered with Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau about needing to appear tougher than Vladimir Putin. When Mr Trudeau evoked the Russian president's infamous shirtless horseback rides, Mr Johnson replied: "We've got to show our pecs." Still, he wasn't able to escape domestic strife completely.

The Commonwealth summit in Rwanda was a reminder of his controversial plan, stymied last month by the European Court of Human Rights, to deport immigrants to the African nation. And while turbulence interrupted the premier as he briefed journalists en route to the Nato summit in Madrid, it was the storm brewing around Pincher that is likely to worry him.

Mr Johnson has built his career on what political commentators call his almost magical ability to survive scandal and woo voters turned off by other Tories. But the star is clearly fading, and he can no longer just click his heels to make things happen.

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