British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, on June 13, 2021. Photo: AFP / Phil Noble

In one of the most astonishing developments seen in modern British politics, the leader of the opposition transformed from a chubby puppy into a rabid attack dog.

Snarling and foaming, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer bared his fangs – and sank them deeply into the wobbly rump of Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Johnson twisted and turned desperately. He whined and groveled, but he could not free himself. Jeers echoed through the debating chamber, while across the length and depth of the nation, a strange noise – slappety, slappety, slap – could be heard: The sound of millions of British gobs being smacked.

While democracies are, as a general rule, kinder and gentler polities than dictatorships, what was seen on the floor of the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Question Time was a spectacle of such primitive savagery it might have turned Himmler’s hair white.

Johnson is a maestro at scandal survival, but multiple indications are that his party instincts – party as in “jolly gatherings,” rather than “political” – have this time carried him over a bridge too far.

That could be good news. One should not celebrate the humiliation of a fellow human, and Johnson is generally believed to be a member of our species. But in this case, there are two potential upsides.

One is that these developments suggest the UK is no longer a one-party polity, with the Conservatives fated to be a forever government.

Second is that Johnson’s departure opens up the premier league – paving the way, potentially, for the UK’s first prime minister of Asian descent, providing a major boost to multiculturalism in a nation once infamous for imperialism.

Time to go, Boris

So what is it that has so undone Johnson and so animated Starmer?

What has transpired is that, while the rest of the country, locked down in bubonic-plague mode, was dining on bread, water and canned misery, it was “game on” at the PM’s residence. For Johnson and his jolly staff, the gin and tonics flowed like Niagara Falls, the canapes were doled out with abandon.

This displayed not only a lack of leadership-by-example, but a lack of plain common sense. To assume that the public would not get wind of the party – actually, a series of parties – was absurd. This is No 10 Downing Street, not the Pyongyang Bunker.

When the public did get wind of it, Johnson, ever the bounder, compounded his woeful judgment with evasions and lies. It was these which provided Starmer with the ammunition he had been waiting for since taking the leadership of the Labour Party in 2020.

Johnson has always had something of the naughty schoolboy about him. But in the face of Starmer’s storm at the dispatch box, we saw a side of Johnson rarely glimpsed before – the unfortunate lad who has wet his trousers in the middle of the cricket pitch.

Never before in Parliament has the boisterous, blustering, table-banging Johnson looked so hopeless, so hapless, so pathetic. Bested, he wilted.

His party took note, and British political parties have an admirable tradition of stabbing their weakened leaders in the back. One Conservative member of Parliament has already crossed the floor to Labour, others were speaking against him in media and even in the House.

Many of the old guard are saying Johnson’s goose is cooked.

A full inquiry into “Partygate” is expected to be published this week. That is when the red meat will truly hit the mincing machine and Johnson’s fate will be decided.

The end of one-party democracy?

Regardless of Johnson’s woes, Starmer’s casting aside of his good-egg persona and fiery assumption of political warriorhood suggests a renaissance for Labour.

That is critical, for it may save the UK from becoming a one-party democracy like Japan. There, the Liberal Democratic Party sweeps plebiscite after plebiscite thanks not to its own brilliance, but to the lack of a viable opposition.

In the UK in recent years, Labour has proved hideously out of touch with the mood of the British public. It last won a general election under Tony Blair in 2005 and has proved hopeless at putting forward candidates who speak to the average Nigel.

Prior to Starmer’s advent, the ideological dunces who make up the party faithful picked Jeremy Corbyn – whose political positioning lies several miles to the left of Josef Stalin’s – as their Great Leader.

Though Comrade Corbski may have shared Comrade Stalin’s political beliefs, he lacked any of his ruthless effectiveness. In Parliament and at the ballot box, the Old Labourite – as inspirational as a field mouse – was bulldozed.

That came with catastrophic timing. Corbyn’s inability to effectively oppose granted the Conservatives a clear field to drag the UK out of the European Union.

Brexit was politically unnecessary, economically preposterous and grounded in a web of lies. Its champion, naturally, was Boris Johnson. And anyone with eyes to see could look at his record and find a fibber, a poltroon, a cad and a rascal.

Alas, Johnson possesses three gifts that the British public finds irresistible: a mastery of the English language; a disheveled appearance; and a sense of humor.

But the British public only has so much love to give. Now Starmer has discovered his inner Jack the Ripper, his party is, at long last, back in the running. Polls since the Partygate scandal broke show Labour leading the Conservatives.

The empire strikes back

Johnson’s train wreck could prove to be a positive development for readers of a newspaper that has the “A” word in its title. Johnson is a potpourri of bad characteristics, but is no racist. His front bench is packed with Anglo-Asians.

This is important because in the British polity, the exit of a prime minister does not trigger a general election. The downfalls of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May were all intra-party affairs.

All triggered leadership contests within the affected parties, which, under new godfathers, served out their terms from the previous general election. The next election is not scheduled until May 2024, offering the next PM – if Johnson, does, indeed, get the boot – a two-year+ run in office.

Among the current contenders, a number of prominent Anglo-Asians are pre-positioned with powerful portfolios.

British Chancellor Rishi Sunak is both the Conservative Party’s and the bookmakers’ favorite to succeed Boris Johnson if the latter is forced to exit the position. Photo: Wikipedia / UK Government

Rishi Sunak, 41, an Anglo-Indian, is Chancellor of the Exchequer – for non-Brits, the finance minister. Sunak is reportedly the favorite among party members polled, as well as being the N 1 seed at the bookmakers.

A youthful high flyer, he has adroitly carried the UK through the pandemic with jobs retention and aid package programs, and the economy is now surging out of the Covid era with flying colors.

While much of this is rebound from the woefully low base the UK hit in the midst of the pandemic, in November, it surpassed its pre-pandemic GDP.  

Sunak, a Hindu, is well presented, well connected and recognizably competent. But his ultra privileged status – he married into the family of an Indian billionaire and formerly worked at Goldman Sachs – could be a turn-off. And as he turns off the easy-money taps, his popularity could also dwindle.

The Home Secretary is the vocal and savagely formidable Priti Patel, 49, another second-generation Anglo-Indian. However, her positioning is the hard right edge of the party, and prior to throwing her lot in with the Conservatives, she was with the ultra-pro-Brexit machine Referendum.

Her tough-girl image – she is alleged to be a bully and is fiercely outspoken on a range of issues – may make her too divisive, if not downright scary, for the average Doris. These factors probably put her out of the race.

Yet another Anglo-Asian power player is Tehran-born Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, 54. But in recent days, Zahawi has lined up behind Johnson.

The man this writer personally likes the look of is Sajid Javid, 52.

A second-generation Brit of Pakistani ancestry, Javid is a non-practicing Muslim married to a Christian. Like Sunak, he too has considerable support among party members. He came fourth against Johnson in the last Conservative leadership contest.

Despite being anti-Brexit, and despite challenging Johnson for the premiership, Javid’s star quality was so clear that Johnson appointed him chancellor. In that position, he showed he was a very untypical politician when he resigned on a point of principle.

After Johnson and his Svengali – Dominic Cummings, who has since turned viperishly against the prime minister – demanded he boot out his advisers, Javid walked.

Even then, Javid’s talents – he is respected for clarity of voice and for decisiveness – are such that he could not be left out of government for long. Johnson reeled him back in June 2021, handing him the most critical job in the government.

While Home, Defense, Foreign and Chancellory have customarily been the prime-ministerial picks, in our Covid-racked times, Health is where the action is – and that is the hot seat Javid was parachuted into. It could have been a poisoned chalice.

In 2020, the UK, despite its vaunted National Health Service, had proved itself one of the worst performers in the developed world when Covid-19 struck. It suffered the highest gross number of dead in Europe and the second-highest per capita figure after Belgium.  

In 2021, London turned it around. The UK became a world leader for the speed and scale of vaccinations and upscaled testing nationwide.

Under Javid, the UK continued this trajectory. It has deployed an impressive number of booster shots and naysayed the latest wave of doomsayers.

When Omicron appeared, modelers and experts gasped, quailed and predicted Armageddon. Other countries doubled down on precautionary measures. But in London, health mandarins looked at data, calibrated risks and made a very bold judgment call.

They kept the country open. Society and the economy continued to turn. Sure enough, hospitals were not overwhelmed and death rates proved that Omicron was, indeed, far less deadly than previous waves of the virus. Dire models were discredited, their projections wrong by hundreds of percent.

A cautiously optimistic prediction is that the UK – and South Africa before it – may have shown the world the exit ramp from Covid-19. Much credit for this can be laid at the door of Javid, whose policy has been that the public must learn to live with Covid.

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid has shown his quality in prior positions and recently led the UK through the Omicron crisis. Photo: Wikipedia / UK Government

Johnson’s ironic Waterloo

Therein also lies the supreme irony of Johnson’s fate.  

Despite all the dire decisions he has taken – history will not be kind to him for his central role in the seismic Brexit debacle, nor for his early attempts at pandemic management – Johnson’s mastery of Covid-19 over the last year has been praiseworthy.

It is noteworthy that it was not any great political scandal that proved his Waterloo, but a foolish and entirely avoidable series of events. His fall from grace had nothing to do with his duties in office, everything to do with his abuse of privileges within that office.

To save his country from uncertainty and his party from dishonor, Johnson should do the right thing and quaff the hemlock.

Perhaps, if it is flavored with gin, he will find it palatable.

Andrew Salmon is Asia Times’ Northeast Asia editor. The views expressed in this column are his own.

Follow Andrew Salmon on Twitter @Andrewcsalmon