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Political reprimand for Johnson when Omicron Variant devours Great Britain

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LONDON – In the morning hours of Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson learned that his Conservative Party had failed in a district it had represented for more than a century. Twelve hours later, the UK reported more than 90,000 new cases of Covid-19 as the Omicron variant devoured the country.

Any of these events would be daunting enough on their own. Together they present a uniquely difficult challenge to Mr Johnson as he struggles to navigate his nation through the latest treacherous phase of the pandemic.

The election defeat revealed the vulnerability of a prime minister who built his career on his electoral skills. Usually reliable Conservative voters turned against the party in striking numbers, disgusted by a constant drop of unsavory ethical revelations and a growing sense that the government is tumbling from crisis to crisis.

The defeat came on top of a mutiny among the ranks of Conservative lawmakers, with around 100 voting against Mr Johnson’s plan to introduce some form of Covid Pass in England earlier this week. After being politically reprimanded, he now has less flexibility to impose new restrictions to contain a virus that is spreading explosively.

Mr Johnson is betting that he can avert a full blown crisis by massively accelerating the UK’s vaccine refreshment program. So far, however, the infection rate has exceeded the percentage of people who received their third vaccination. Since the variant doubles every 2.5 days, epidemiologists warn that a kind of lockdown could ultimately be the only way to prevent an unsustainable burden on hospitals.

“What on earth will the Prime Minister do when the rising Covid numbers mean he has strong scientific advice to take further restrictive measures?” said Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, a research institute.

Johnson was able to pass his latest measures thanks to votes from the opposition Labor Party. But that had dramatized his political weakness, noted Ms. Rutter, and recourse to it would further anger his own ranks. “Politically, this is a terrible place for the prime minister,” she added.

Indeed, Mr Johnson has to worry about fending off a managerial role – a once-out-of-the-way scenario that is now suddenly plausible as conservative lawmakers fear the disastrous outcome in North Shropshire, a district near the English border with Wales, is in the next Defeat could result in defeat general election.

Victorious Liberal Democrat candidate Helen Morgan toppled a nearly 23,000 majority won by former Conservative MP Owen Paterson in the last general election in 2019. Mr Paterson, a former cabinet secretary who has held the seat since 1997, resigned last month after breaking lobbying rules despite Mr Johnson’s unsuccessful attempt to rescue him.

The only respite for Mr Johnson is for Parliament to take a break on Thursday over the Christmas holidays. That will dampen the momentum behind any possible challenge to the leadership, at least until the Conservative lawmakers return to Westminster after the New Year and assess the state of their party and the country.

A prime minister who promised to save Christmas a week ago may now need Christmas to save him.

“I totally understand people’s frustrations,” Johnson said on Friday. “I have to accept this judgment with all humility.” But he also blamed the news media, telling Sky News, “Some things went very well, but what people have heard is just a constant litany of things about politics and politicians.”

Mr Johnson’s reputation has been tarnished by popular claims in the newspapers that his employees held Christmas parties on Downing Street last year when they were banned by coronavirus restrictions.

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had investigated these allegations but abruptly pulled back on Friday evening after a report surfaced that he knew of a separate party in his own office last year. Although another officer, Sue Gray, will take over the investigation, the latest revelation will likely only increase public suspicions about the government’s behavior.

Even before the North Shropshire electoral defeat, there was speculation that Mr Johnson would hardly be able to face a formal challenge to his leadership more than two years after his landslide election victory in December 2019.

In order to initiate a vote of no confidence, 54 MPs would have to write to the chairman of the committee that represents the conservative backbenchers, Graham Brady. Such letters are confidential, but analysts don’t think the prospect is close.

Even so, Friday’s result will add to the nervousness on Downing Street. North Shropshire was one of the safest Conservative Party seats in a part of Britain that supported Brexit, Johnson’s pivotal political project. Many Labor voters and others hostile to the Conservatives banded together around the Liberal Democrats, the party most likely to defeat the Tories in the region – a practice known as tactical voting.

If this repeats itself in the next general election at the national level, it could take perhaps 30 seats from the Conservatives and influence the result in close competition, said Peter Kellner, a former president of the polling institute YouGov.

“The tactical vote has the chance to change UK politics significantly after the next general election,” he said.

Over the past few weeks Labor has been ahead of Conservatives in several opinion polls, which have also seen a sharp drop in Mr Johnson’s approval ratings. Political analysts said this could also put the prime minister in a vulnerable position given his party’s transactional nature.

“The Tory Party is an unscrupulous machine to win elections,” said Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “If that continues in an election cycle, the party will get rid of him quickly.”

But while the political climate remains volatile, most voters are more preoccupied with the effects of the Omicron variant as they prepare for the holiday season. Scientists said it was too early to say if the variant was less severe than the previous ones, but warned that even if it did, given the enormous number of infections, it would not necessarily prevent a rapid surge in hospital admissions.

“If you have enough cases per day, hospital admissions could potentially be a huge challenge for any hospital system,” said Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, whose terrifying predictions of the virus prompted Mr Johnson to issue his first lockdown in March 2020.

Ms Rutter said Mr Johnson could still get away unscathed if the variant was milder than feared, the hospitals were not overwhelmed and the booster program was effective. His luck rebounded earlier in the year when Britain’s vaccination was quick and effective and he was able to lift all restrictions in July.

However, by weakening Johnson’s position, the North Shropshire defeat should also encourage his rivals, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Any resulting cabinet tension is likely to further undermine Mr Johnson’s authority.

All of this is a dangerous recipe for a prime minister who may be forced to return to parliament to approve further restrictions.

“In March 2020 he had massive political capital from this fantastic election victory,” said Rutter. “During this time he managed to squander this political capital, certainly within his party.”

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