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It's unclear if Boris Johnson can bounce back from low approval ratings and scandals


When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a landslide election in 2019, he seemed set to remain in power for years. But after a series of recent scandals, some in Johnson's own Conservative Party are talking about replacing him. So can Britain's most colorful and controversial politician rebound? NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Whatever else you might want to say about Boris Johnson, he's proven to be a winner at the ballot box. And two years ago, he led his party to its biggest victory since Margaret Thatcher.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: And I, of course, want to congratulate absolutely everybody involved in securing the biggest conservative majority since the late '80s.


LANGFITT: But scandals have piled up in the last couple of months. Johnson's approval ratings - they've slid to 23%. That's the lowest of his premiership. The prime minister sparked outrage in early November, when his government tried to block the suspension of a fellow Conservative Party lawmaker who violated lobbying rules. A few weeks later, Johnson gave this rambling speech to business leaders who were worried about the economy in which he appeared to get lost for more than 20 seconds.


JOHNSON: Forgive me. Forgive me.

LANGFITT: Then he went off on a tangent about the virtues of Peppa Pig World. It's a theme park based on the British children's TV character.


JOHNSON: Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place. It has very safe streets, discipline in schools.

LANGFITT: After that, reports surfaced that staffers at No. 10 Downing Street apparently held parties last Christmas while such gatherings were forbidden. And some people here - they weren't able to say goodbye in person to relatives dying of COVID. A leaked video showed Allegra Stratton - she was the prime minister's spokeswoman at the time - joking about one of the parties in a mock press conference.


ED OLDFIELD: I've just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night. Do you recognize those reports?



STRATTON: Hold on. Hold on.

LANGFITT: Johnson insisted his staff didn't break COVID rules and apologized for the video. In a special election this month, voters responded by ousting Johnson's conservatives from a parliamentary seat in England that the party had held almost uninterrupted for nearly two centuries. Some of Johnson's fellow conservative lawmakers are equally unhappy. Sir Roger Gale has served in Parliament for nearly four decades.

ROGER GALE: If the prime minister fails, the prime minister goes. Mr. Johnson has to prove that he's capable of being a good prime minister, and at the moment, it's quite clear that the public don't think that's the case.

LANGFITT: Until now, Johnson has been the country's quintessential Teflon politician. He's crafted this eccentric, bumbling persona that often entertains, deflects and disarms. David Gauke is a former government minister.

DAVID GAUKE: He's seen as a figure that doesn't take himself too seriously, that he's sort of struck by the absurdity of politics in a way, that he almost is a sort of subversive figure.

LANGFITT: That formula worked when Johnson was, say, the mayor of London. But now he's running the country, and the stakes of the pandemic are life and death. Here again is David Gauke, who was kicked out of the party two years ago after he voted against Johnson on Brexit.

GAUKE: The thing with Boris Johnson is that he was essentially always having a sort of a joke against establishment figures, and the public were kind of in on the joke with him. It's coming across increasingly at the moment that, really, the public are the butt of the joke.

LANGFITT: Johnson can't rely on party loyalty to survive because he's been a political chameleon. Katy Balls is deputy political editor at Britain's Spectator magazine.

KATY BALLS: The problem for Boris Johnson is his relationship with the parliamentary party has always been very transactional. So if Tory MPs decide this isn't just a blip, that, actually, this is a more permanent change in public opinion, they might conclude that he is no longer an asset in an election but instead a liability.

LANGFITT: Names of potential successors are already swirling. They include Rishi Sunak, the U.K.'s treasury secretary, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. But neither have the charisma nor the national appeal of Johnson, who's proven incredibly resilient. Again, Katy Balls.

BALLS: I would never want to bet against Boris Johnson because I think that we have effectively seen throughout his political career that people write him off and that he bounces back. That said, I do think the next six months look pretty tough. I think if he can make it past the next six months, he'll probably lead them into the next election.

LANGFITT: Which is scheduled for 2024. But if Johnson continues to stumble, Balls says his colleagues could try to topple him this summer. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.