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Can an India-Origin Leader Replace UK's Increasingly Unpopular Prime Minister?

If Boris Johnson's leadership continues to crumble, there's a strong chance that a desi will replace him.

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Opinion
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Can an India-Origin Leader Replace UK's Increasingly Unpopular Prime Minister?
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(This article was originally published on 12 December 2021. It is being reposted after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked to resign by multiple members of the opposition in the House of Commons on 12 January 2022. The demands for his resignation came minutes after he admitted and apologised for attending a garden party at his Downing Street office in May 2020, which violated lockdown rules imposed on the British public by his own government.)

In the second week of December 2021, Boris Johnson became a father again. His seventh child – a baby girl – within hours of her birth, featured in a cartoon in The Times newspaper, which showed the prime minister welcoming his new-born child as 'the sweetest little diversionary tactic of them all!'

Britain's prime minister certainly needs to divert attention from his escalating problems. He faces by far the biggest set of crises of his time in power – a range of rows, scandals, and conflicts which have raised acute questions about the PM's integrity, competence and political instincts. All the cardinal qualities you need in a leader seem to have deserted him.

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Beginning of the End of Boris Johnson

Opposition parties are proclaiming that he is not fit to be prime minister. Some prominent figures in Boris Johnson's Conservative party privately agree – and a few are now saying so openly. Andrew Neil, a leading right-wing political commentator, has pronounced solemnly: 'We have entered the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson'.

No one expects Johnson to be forced from office imminently, but there is increasing speculation that he will not lead the Conservatives into the next election. And there's chatter, too, about whether he might be replaced by one of the politicians of South Asian heritage who have high profile jobs in his desi-friendly cabinet.

Until a few weeks ago, Boris seemed to be riding out the various storms that face all top politicians. He led his party to a convincing election victory two years ago and delivered on his campaign promise to 'Get Brexit Done'. While much of the British government's handling of the COVID pandemic has been poor, it has in the past year overseen a swift and effective roll-out of a mass vaccination programme.

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'Party' Troubles For Boris Johnson 

The pandemic has also exposed the prime minister's weaknesses. Britain is once more tightening rules about wearing masks and urging everyone to work from home in the face of the spread of the new Omicron variant. Vaccine passports will be required for admission to many sports events and bigger entertainment venues. All this has horrified the libertarian wing of the Conservative party, which rages against being told what to do by an over-mighty state. Their patience has snapped. The sharp divisions within the party are on public view.

But it's a different COVID-related issue that has provoked public anger and eroded trust in the prime minister. A year ago, we now discover, a Christmas social gathering took place in 10 Downing Street at a time when the government was instructing everyone to avoid mixing indoors with people from another household. Boris Johnson was in the building at the time and can hardly have been unaware of a fairly boozy get-together of several dozen of his staff a few yards away.

The prime minister had repeatedly told Parliament that there was no Christmas party and all COVID prevention rules were complied with. The trouble – for him – is that no one believes him: the public are furious that those who set the rules appear not to follow them; Conservative MPs are angry about their leader plunging the government into a needless crisis; while opposition leaders have at last found an issue which resonates with the electorate.

In the past few days, the Labour party has pulled ahead in the opinion polls.

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Unaccountable Prime Minister

It's a reminder that nothing is so perilous for a politician as giving the appearance of being arrogant and unaccountable.

Another looming crisis concerns irregularities in the funding of lavish renovations to the prime minister's flat-above-the-office in Downing Street. Spending went well over the allocation from public money. Boris Johnson at first made good the shortfall, about a crore in all, by getting funds from a leading donor to the Conservative party, but in a manner that was neither transparent not compliant.

The Conservative party has now been fined for breaking the rules about declaring donations – and if it transpires that the prime minister sought to cover up embarrassing aspects of this unseemly mess, he could be in hot water.

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Priti Patel, Rishi Sunak, Or Sajid Javid?

But if not Boris, then who? The Conservative party is ruthless in getting rid of leaders who have become a liability. But at the moment, there's no obvious successor.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, has support on the right-wing of the party, not least because of her hardline rhetoric against illegal immigrants. But she's had a bumpy time and was found by an inquiry to have bullied her staff – a ruling which would normally have required her resignation, though Boris bent the rules (again) and found a way to save her.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has been seen as a success with his measures to protect the economy from the worst effects of the pandemic. Some of his fellow Conservatives are alarmed by the tax increases Sunak has presided over. But he is still the betting favourite to be Britain's next PM.

Another Conservative of South Asian heritage is also in contention. Sajid Javid, whose parents were migrants from Pakistan, has proved to be a straight talking health secretary.

So if Boris Johnson's leadership continues to crumble, there's a strong chance that a desi will replace him.

(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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