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How did Britain's Boris Johnson fall so far so fast?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A little more than two years ago, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a historical landslide election. Today, he's fighting for his political life. Now, the problem is parties, not the political kind, the really fun kind. More specifically, his office, No. 10 Downing Street, is accused of throwing a number of parties, even as such gatherings were banned by the very pandemic rules Johnson's own government created. NPR's Frank Langfitt is outside No. 10 Downing Street in London. Frank, remind us briefly, how did Johnson fall so far so fast?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, he was doing very, very well as recently as a few months ago. But there's been this drip, drip of, basically, leaks about a series of what most of us would consider parties but he tends to call work events. And it's been coming out. And the problem is, this is a time when, of course, in many cases, people were not gathering inside. They were not even seeing some of their loved ones. And what seems to have happened is there was kind of a partying culture. Certainly, that's what we're hearing in No. 10 Downing Street. I'll give you a couple of examples. Back - not so long ago, there was a - I guess it was last year - wine and cheese garden party, where the prime minister was actually photographed. He said he thought that was a work event.

There were also stories of people bringing in wine in a suitcase. And there were two events which No. 10 had to apologize last week. And these came on the eve of the funeral for Prince Philip, the queen's husband. And this was a really - as they say in British English, a very bad look because the next day, the queen was in a chapel out at Windsor Castle, sitting alone with a mask on mourning her husband while the night before, people were drinking it up, apparently, in No. 10.

MARTINEZ: How many parliamentarians in Johnson's Conservative Party are calling for his head right now?

LANGFITT: Publicly, very few, A - only six. There's one who's been on TV recently, Andrew Bridgen. He's up from around the northeast of Birmingham. And he said one day last week, he got 300 emails from constituents who wanted Johnson out. And this is what Bridgen told Sky News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW BRIDGEN: It's not just one mistake by Boris Johnson and those at No. 10, it's a pattern of behavior. And the pattern of behavior indicates to me that they think that they can do what they want, and the rest of us have got to do as we're told.

LANGFITT: And, A, I think this is really galling to a lot of people because Boris Johnson for many years has been perceived as somebody who's a rule breaker, even going back to his days at the University of Oxford. And so people do see this - not just a pattern recently, but sort of kind of his style. And the problem is, A, you know, this is a very serious time where people were losing loved ones, weren't able to say goodbye to them because they followed the rules. And this really, really - I think, this has really upset people here.

MARTINEZ: And some of these events happened as far back as 2020. Why are we only hearing about them now?

LANGFITT: Yeah. That's a great question. Here's what everybody thinks is going on. Somebody either inside No. 10 Downing Street or a number of people who knew exactly what was going on during the height of the pandemic, they want to get the prime minister. And in a very expert way, they have been leaking something every few days. And so basically, the prime minister is taking hit after hit after hit. He can't really respond because he never knows what's coming next. There was even another report of an event that came out today. And so the idea is that he has some pretty well-informed enemies who are trying to get him out of office.

MARTINEZ: What are the chances of that, though, happening, that he leaves?

LANGFITT: It could easily happen. But it's too early to say. In order to do this in the parliamentary system here, 54 parliamentarians from his party, the Conservative Party, have to write, asking for a leadership challenge. We don't know how many of those letters have come in. But we don't think we're anywhere near 54. And so that's - we're going to have to see how that plays out in the next few weeks. There's also an internal investigation. And we'll have to hear the results of that.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Frank Langfitt joining us from outside 10 Downing Street in London. Frank, thanks.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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