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Sunak Puts Boris Johnson’s Legacy to a Vote in Bid to End Chaos

Sunak Puts Boris Johnson’s Legacy to a Vote in Bid to End Chaos
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 02: Former UK prime minister Boris Johnson addresses the Global Soft Power Summit at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre on March 2, 2023 in London, England. The conference explores the role of soft power in international politics and business. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will let UK lawmakers deliver a final verdict on rival Boris Johnson’s scandal-ridden tenure, a high-risk bid to remove his predecessor’s long shadow over the Conservative Party.

Read More: Boris Johnson Found in ‘Serious Contempt’ of UK Parliament

The House of Commons will vote Monday on whether to accept a parliamentary probe that found Johnson repeatedly misled politicians about the rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during the pandemic. The government said Tory MPs will not be instructed on how to vote, meaning Sunak is effectively opting not to intervene to protect Johnson’s reputation or ease any punishment.

The report Thursday by the seven-member, majority-Tory parliamentary committee investigating Johnson’s behavior was largely unsurprising, but still shocked with the severity of its indictment of the former leader.

It left Sunak with a major dilemma on how to frame the subsequent vote: let MPs endorse its findings, or limit them to acknowledging the report was published.

Three people familiar with the matter said the government’s motion on Monday will ask MPs to approve of the report. The terms of vote are also amendable, meaning MPs could try to make any sanction against Johnson — who quit Parliament when presented with the report — more severe.

Sunak’s decision will come as blow for Johnson, who now faces MPs giving a full-throated endorsement of the findings against him. That will dent his hopes of a political comeback by undermining the argument that he was unfairly pushed out, or as Johnson has repeatedly said, the victim of a “witch hunt.”

Having resigned as an MP before MPs had a chance to vote on it, Johnson was likely hoping he could avoid formal censure.

Yet it also poses a risk for Sunak, because even though Johnson’s power in the party is waning, the former premier still has allies and a track record of causing trouble from the sidelines. The long-running animosity between the two men behind the scenes has boiled over into an ugly public spat in recent weeks and shredded any lingering sense of unity in the governing Conservative Party.

That raises the question of how Sunak himself will vote, given the strength of feelings involved. His spokesman, Jamie Davies, said the premier hadn’t yet read the report but would “take time” to understand its conclusions.

The looming election for Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat in northwest London —  as well as the Selby and Ainsty district previously held by Johnson loyalist Nigel Adams — on July 20 will loom large in Sunak’s thinking. Another Johnson ally Nadine Dorries, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, has said she’s stepping down but is yet to follow through with an official resignation.

Any losses would compound the sense that the Conservatives are heading in the wrong direction following a poor showing in local elections in early May.

Read More: Sunak Sets July 20 for Major Electoral Test Triggered by Johnson

The challenge is made even more difficult by the specter of Johnson hanging over the contests. A YouGov poll on Thursday found just 5% of the public at large, and 8% of people who voted Conservative at the last general election in 2019, think the governing party is “united.”

“Ultimately it’s always been the case that it’s up to Parliament and individual MPs to make their own decisions off the back” of committee reports, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden told Bloomberg TV’s Lizzy Burden at the Founders Forum London conference on Thursday.

“Partygate” — the media nickname for the pandemic rule-breaking that led both Johnson and Sunak to receive police fines — is still hurting the party, which trails the opposition Labour Party in national surveys with a general election expected in 2024. Support for the Tories, which surged on the back of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, crumbled under the weight of scandal.

Johnson was ultimately ousted by an unprecedented number of ministerial resignations but he has always blamed Sunak for triggering the rush — even though it was then Health Secretary Sajid Javid who kicked things off.

It was Johnson who set up the parliamentary probe into partygate, but he has since accused Sunak of not stepping into protect him from its conclusions. Johnson’s attacks on the panel itself have also intensified dramatically, alienating the former premier from all but a core group of supporters.

More recently, Johnson blamed Sunak for not ensuring some of his allies received resignation honors. That row blew open last week when Sunak published the list, after Johnson had received the partygate probe findings.

Thangam Debbonaire, the opposition Labour Party’s shadow Commons leader, said the probe calls into question the validity of Johnson’s honors list, which she described as “a lawbreaker and a liar rewarding his cronies.”

Johnson’s resignation effectively entwined the scandals, while triggering a backlash against the Tories and engulfing them in negative media coverage. Shifting the narrative will be critical for Sunak ahead of the elections next month, and Monday’s vote is a clear attempt to do that.

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