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UK's Johnson bids to woo restive party members

Boris Johnson has been accused by some of his own lawmakers of governing by diktat as millions more people in England are forced into local lockdowns
Boris Johnson has been accused by some of his own lawmakers of governing by diktat as millions more people in England are forced into local lockdowns JACK HILL POOL/AFP/File
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London (AFP)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative party opens its annual conference Saturday in an edgy mood, as stricter coronavirus curbs on British life prompt mounting questions about his leadership.

The health crisis has forced the conference to switch to virtual format, and it will open with a keynote speech by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab laying out Britain's priorities as a sovereign state outside the European Union.

Johnson will close the conference with a speech on Tuesday, and he will have to face down mounting disquiet within the party and the public at large, as a second coronavirus wave worsens what is already the highest death toll in Europe.

According to a survey by the ConservativeHome news site, support has slumped among party members for mandatory local lockdowns, and more now favour a Sweden-style approach that emphasises voluntary social distancing.

Johnson won a thumping election victory in December, but ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman noted that in the party at large, his personal approval ratings now trail that of the government's.

Johnson has been accused by some of his own lawmakers of governing by diktat as millions more people in England are forced into local lockdowns, and dissidents have been rallying around his popular young finance minister, Rishi Sunak.

Sunak, who is gaining a reputation for slick presentation, gives a keynote address on Monday to laud the drastic measures he has been taking to protect the economy from further havoc.

- Brexit and bashing -

Conservative party chair Amanda Milling insisted that party members "still love Boris".

"I think people understand that, actually, we're in an unprecedented situation where, as a government, we have a responsibility to protect people's lives," she told the Politico website in a pre-conference interview.

"The prime minister delivered that incredible result last December. We wouldn't have that 80-seat majority if it wasn't down to Boris and the manifesto and getting Brexit done."

But rather than resolving the UK's long goodbye from the EU, Johnson is now at loggerheads with Brussels after pushing through legislation that bypasses the bloc on future trading arrangements between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The controversy has caused alarm among some Conservative lawmakers who are worried about the damage to Britain's reputation as a defender of the rule of law.

However, bashing Brussels is normally lapped up by the right-wing party faithful -- and Johnson has traditionally been the basher-in-chief whenever he has addressed the annual conference.

This time, he is deprived of a large-scale opportunity to grandstand.

But according to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, no Johnson stem-winder could wish away the facts of a deadly and worsening pandemic.

"The only upside for Johnson is that taking the whole thing online means that conference this year doesn't provide the kind of opportunity it otherwise might for his worried colleagues to grumble and even begin to wonder aloud -- over some disappointingly warm white wine and uninspiring stale sandwiches -- whether they should start to think about replacing him sooner rather than later," Bale told AFP.

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