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UK PM Johnson faces plot to trigger leadership challenge

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Finchley Memorial Hospital, an NHS (National Health Service) community hospital, in North London, Britain January 18, 2022. Ian Vogler/Pool via REUTERS

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was fighting to shore up his premiership on Wednesday (19 January) amid a revolt by his own lawmakers who are angry over a series of lockdown parties in Downing Street, write Andrew MacAskill and Guy Faulconbridge.

Propelled into the top job to “get Brexit done”, Johnson in 2019 won his party’s biggest majority in more than 30 years but now faces calls to resign after a series of revelations about parties in Downing Street – the prime ministers’ home and office – during COVID lockdowns.

Johnson has repeatedly apologised for the parties and said that he was unaware of many of them. However, he attended what he said he thought was a work event on May 20, 2020 which revellers had been told to “bring their own booze”.

To trigger a leadership challenge, 54 of the 360 Conservative MPs in parliament must write letters of no confidence to the chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee.

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As many as 20 Conservative lawmakers who won their seats at the last national election in 2019 plan to submit letters of no confidence in Johnson, the Telegraph reported. A handful of others have already said they had written such letters.

“Group of 2019 MPs to submit letters to try to hit threshold of 54 to trigger a contest,” BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg said on Twitter. “They might hit 54.”

An analysis by The Times newspaper showed that 58 Conservative lawmakers had openly criticised the prime minister.

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Toppling Johnson would leave the United Kingdom in limbo for months just as the West deals with the Ukraine crisis and the world’s fifth largest economy grapples with the inflationary wave triggered by the COVID pandemic, with UK inflation rising to the highest level in nearly 30 years.

Leading rivals within the Conservative Party include Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, 41, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, 46.

Johnson on Tuesday denied an accusation by his former adviser that he had lied to parliament about a lockdown party, saying nobody had warned him the “bring your own booze” gathering might contravene COVID-19 rules.

He sidestepped questions about whether he would resign if proven he misled parliament, saying only that he wanted to wait for the outcome of an internal inquiry.

Johnson will address parliament on Wednesday after his Cabinet is expected to approve plans to end the recent restrictions imposed to tackle the spread of COVID-19 in England.

Opposition leaders have accused Johnson of being a serial liar and called on him to step down.

Downing Street lockdown parties – some held when ordinary people could not bid farewell in person to dying relatives – have undermined Johnson’s authority.

His own former spokeswoman resigned after she was captured laughing and joking on camera about how to cast a party if asked about it by reporters.

Such was the revelry in Downing Street at one event that staff went to a nearby supermarket to buy a suitcase of alcohol, spilled wine on carpets, and broke a swing used by the prime minister’s young son.

The Mirror said staff had even bought a wine fridge for Friday gatherings, events that were regularly observed by Johnson as he walked to his apartment in the building.

Johnson has given a variety of explanations of the parties, ranging from denials that any rules were broken to expressing understanding for the public anger at apparent hypocrisy at the heart of the British state.

Opponents have called for Johnson to resign, casting him as a charlatan who demanded the British people follow some of the most onerous rules in peacetime history while his staff partied.

The latest plot was cast as the “pork pie plot” because one alleged rebel lawmaker was from Melton, the home of the Melton Mowbray pork pie. Pork pie is also London slang for a lie.

The rise of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, often referred to as simply “Boris”, to prime minister was the grandest move in a career that took him from journalism via TV show fame, comedy and scandal into the cauldron of the Brexit crisis – and then to the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic.

If lockdown parties sink that career, it would mark yet another extraordinary twist to nearly 12 years of tumultuous Conservative Party rule which has included Brexit, a referendum on Scottish independence and a quiver of elections.

A flamboyant figure known for his ambition, untidy blond hair, flowery oratory and cursory command of policy detail, Johnson’s rise to power was all about Brexit.

But after securing Britain’s exit from the European Union, Johnson was hit by the COVID pandemic which has killed 152,513 people in the United Kingdom. After surviving COVID in 2020, he said it nearly killed him.

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