PM Johnson rallies the troops as party faces uncertain future

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (centre) heading for the Conservative Party conference in Manchester yesterday. He appears to be no nearer to finding a formula to separate Britain from the EU without risking further political and economic chaos.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (centre) heading for the Conservative Party conference in Manchester yesterday. He appears to be no nearer to finding a formula to separate Britain from the EU without risking further political and economic chaos. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Conservatives are in serious electoral danger as they do not have a majority in Parliament

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will face one of the toughest challenges of his leadership as he delivers the concluding speech at his Conservative Party's annual conference today.

For the party, which has ruled Britain for longer than any other and has been in power since 2010, no longer enjoys a majority in Parliament and is in serious electoral danger.

And despite all the fighting talk that Mr Johnson is likely to offer in his address, he appears to be no nearer to finding a formula to separate his country from the European Union without risking further political and economic chaos.

Initially, Mr Johnson planned to devote this entire week to the party conference, an annual British political bonding ritual during which politicians seek to connect with their broader electorate and announce new initiatives.

But his initial plans to suspend parliamentary sessions for half of this month in order to give him the freedom of manoeuvre were overturned when Britain's Supreme Court ruled the suspension illegal.

So, for the first time in decades, the ruling Conservatives had to get together in Manchester, 300km north of London, without their full complement of MPs as many of them had to stay behind for parliamentary business in London. And that is not a good omen for a party that has sought to present a united front.

To make matters worse, up to two dozen of the party's leading MPs, people who served as key ministers in former governments and old stalwarts such as the grandson of former prime minister Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime hero, are not attending.

They were kicked out of the party because they rebelled against Mr Johnson's plans to take Britain out of the EU by the end of this month, regardless of whether proper arrangements with Europe could be put in place.

And if this was not enough, Mr Johnson is also embroiled in a personal scandal over allegations that he had improperly touched a female journalist two decades ago.

He has dismissed the allegations as false and irrelevant, saying: ''I think that what the public want to hear is what we're doing for them and for the country.''

Still, the personal conduct of a prime minister who has divorced his first wife, is in the process of divorcing his second, lives with a third partner and has fathered a number of children out of wedlock is slowly beginning to have a negative impact on Mr Johnson's public standing.

With an early general election widely predicted to take place by the end of this year, Mr Johnson is certain to deliver a fighting speech today, intended to rally his troops for battle.

Opinion polls indicate that, notwithstanding all the internal divisions and scandals, the Conservatives are still between 10 and 12 percentage points ahead of Labour, their main opponents.

But the British electorate is so polarised over the question of Brexit that no prediction of the ballot's result can be taken seriously.

And besides, the Conservatives and Labour together now appear to command the loyalty of barely half of those intending to vote; two years ago, when Britain last held a general election, 82 per cent voted for one of the country's two main parties.

Mr Johnson is also certain to use his speech today to tempt the electorate with offers of extra spending on education, law and order and healthcare - ''schools, cops and docs'', as one of his ministers jokingly put it.

Commentators are also waiting to see whether the Prime Minister offers an olive branch to MPs now excluded from the party; the rift could cause the Conservatives a loss of some constituencies.

But all eyes will be on what Mr Johnson says about his strategy to resolve the question of Britain's departure from the EU. The Prime Minister claims that he remains committed to pulling Britain out by the end of this month, despite the fact that negotiations with Europe have gone nowhere, and the British Parliament has precluded the possibility of leaving the EU without a negotiated agreement.

''Get Brexit Done'' is the slogan of this year's Conservative Party conference.

But a compromise agreement, that some British ministers have touted, has already been dismissed by EU negotiating officials as unworkable, and it is hard to see how Mr Johnson can avoid asking the union for an extension to the separation negotiations until early next year, precisely what he has sworn not to do.

Still, the confidence of party stalwarts in their leader remains strong.

''Our party is populated by a breed of really good people and we can trust them not to be daft,'' said the appropriately-named James Cleverly, the Conservative Party chairman.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2019, with the headline 'PM Johnson rallies the troops as party faces uncertain future'. Print Edition | Subscribe