"What on earth happened to the freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character I voted for," asked one columnist.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson likes to style himself as a buccaneer, waving a cutlass and thumbing his nose at convention as he leads Britain into an uncharted future. These days, however, he looks more like a latter-day Captain Bligh, grimly confronting one mutiny after another.
The latest uprising came this week as about 80 members of Johnson's Conservative Party threatened to defy him and vote for a measure that would require the government to obtain Parliament's consent before passing any more coronavirus restrictions. Johnson seemed likely to avert an embarrassing defeat by compromising with the rebels in his party's ranks.
But the ugly family squabble only attests to his diminished status. Nine months after leading the Conservatives to a landslide victory in general elections, polls show Johnson, 56, has frittered away support within his party, ceded ground to the once-hapless opposition and lost favor with the British public.
The gleeful ringmaster of British politics has given way to a gloomier figure, one who seems bewildered by his own social-distancing rules, detached from the details of his Brexit negotiations with the European Union and enervated by a premiership that has not gone the way he, or anyone else, expected.
"One can understand why he is exhausted — we nearly lost him," said Crispin Blunt, a pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker, referring to Johnson's serious bout with the coronavirus, which landed him in an intensive care unit in April and has prompted rumours that he never fully recovered his vigour.
But rather than healing the country after the wars of Brexit, Blunt said, a coterie of powerful advisers around the prime minister is more intent on stoking culture wars — further dividing a country that, in the grip of a lethal pandemic, desperately needs unity. He said Johnson "appears to have ceded control of his administration to those who don't share his own values."
Moreover, critics say, Johnson's government has demonstrated serial incompetence on the major issues of the day, notably its erratic handling of lockdown rules, cruel and discriminatory treatment of students whose college-entry exams were disrupted by the pandemic, and its blunderbuss approach to trade talks with the European Union.
Two weeks ago, Britain threatened to renege on parts of a landmark withdrawal agreement with Brussels, soiling its global reputation for upholding the rule of law. All three living Conservative ex-prime ministers condemned the move, and Johnson was forced to put down yet another rebellion in Parliament, but the House of Commons voted on Tuesday night to approve his strategy.
Even as a negotiating tactic, it may have backfired. Some analysts believe Johnson will now have to make more significant concessions to Brussels to strike a trade deal by the December 31 deadline, because Britain can ill-afford a no-deal Brexit on top of the economic fallout from the pandemic.
"The government is sending some terrible signs about what we really stand for," said Blunt.
Johnson rejected suggestions that neither he nor his government was operating on all cylinders. On Tuesday, speaking in the city of Exeter, the prime minister insisted he was "as fit as a butcher's dog," noting that he had lost weight since his illness.
He delivered a speech on overhauling education and skills training that was meant to regain momentum for the government after the student exams fiasco last summer. But Johnson's message was somewhat overshadowed when he could not answer a question about whether, under the newly tightened restrictions for the northeast of England, members of two households were allowed to meet in outdoor beer gardens.
Unlike President Donald Trump, who has largely brushed off scientific advice in dealing with the virus, Johnson has vowed to be guided by the science. But with new cases in Britain surging to more than 5,000 a day, he is now caught between the dire warnings of his medical advisers that a deadly second wave could balloon to 50,000 cases a day, and the equally dire warnings of his Cabinet ministers and Conservative backbenchers about the damage another lockdown would do to the already traumatised economy.
When Johnson last week ordered bars and restaurants to close by 10pm, on the heels of an order that limited socialising to groups of six, it prompted an outcry in Conservative ranks. Even those who sympathised with the moves bridled at how they were introduced without any consultation with Parliament.
"Democracy is not just about elections, but about how we deal with each other as citizens," said Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative lawmaker and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, speaking in the House of Commons.
Tugendhat was alluding to what critics see as the pervasive influence of advisers in No. 10 Downing St., led by Dominic Cummings, the combative strategist who ran the Vote Leave campaign before the 2016 Brexit referendum. Cummings still uses campaign tactics, even setting up a high-tech "control center" in Whitehall, around the corner from Downing Street.
Conservative lawmakers chose Johnson as party leader last year not out of affection but because they calculated that he would win an election. Many now feel sidelined or worse. Johnson, who never spent much time in Parliament's tearoom, has shown little appetite for cultivating his backbenchers.
"If you keep whacking a dog, don't be surprised when it bites you back," said Charles Walker, vice chairman of the 1922 committee, which represents Conservative backbenchers.
Part of Johnson's problem is that the pandemic does not play to his strengths. With large public gatherings off-limits, Johnson is unable to win over audiences with humour. Instead, he finds himself at grim news conferences, warning about the latest transmission virus rate or threatening to close pubs.
"He was delivered a crisis that was utterly and totally anathema to everything he thinks about himself," said Sonia Purnell, a British journalist who wrote a critical biography of Johnson. "He doesn't like teamwork, he doesn't like working very hard and he doesn't like telling the truth."
The stream of bad news has eroded Johnson's popularity and his party's. In April, when he was discharged from the hospital, 66 per cent of people surveyed said he was performing well, while only 26 per cent said he was performing badly, according to the research group YouGov. Now, just 35 per cent say he is performing well, while 57 per cent say he is doing badly.
Last week, the Labour Party overtook the Conservatives for the first time since the election in a poll conducted by the firm Opinium. The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, also outperformed Johnson by 4 percentage points on the question of which leader would make the best prime minister.
Behind Johnson's political travails are murmurings about his personal life — that he has complained of being under financial strain since a recent divorce from his second wife. As prime minister, Johnson earns about 150,000 pounds ($293,000) a year, but he used to make far more as a newspaper columnist, book author and paid speaker. The Times of London has reported that he took a pay cut of more than 670,000 pounds (about $1.3 million) to become prime minister.
Downing Street has flatly denied reports describing a glum prime minister with money woes.
But even his once-loyal supporters in the news media write about his subdued demeanour in a wistful tone. "What on earth happened to the freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character I voted for?" Toby Young wrote in a column for The Spectator, a political magazine Johnson once edited.
While the Conservative Party has a history of turning against even legendary leaders when its fortunes slide — most famously, Margaret Thatcher in 1990 — few people are ready to bet against Johnson.
"Most prime ministers end up dealing with something that they were not expecting, and he's in the process of learning," said Andrew Gimson, another of Johnson's biographers.
The prime minister remains the dominant political figure in Britain, with no rivals in the government — save, perhaps, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, who has become popular for his imaginative handling of coronavirus bailout funds.
Given the single-minded ambition that propelled Johnson to Downing Street, Gimson dismissed suggestions that he would cave in to pressure and relinquish the job he has sought for most of his adult life.
"Boris is fiercely competitive and he would absolutely hate the idea of somebody forcing him out," he said.
Written by: Mark Landler and Stephen Castle
Photographs by: Andrew Testa
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES