Boris Johnson is having his Winston Churchill moment

Reflected glory is often the best way to get extra kudos. Thus, Boris Johnson welcomed the praise of Volodymyr Zelenskiy for his tough stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Prime Minister has now doubled his support. As well he might. The war saved Johnson’s leadership from a sense of downward drift. The question is whether the lull is temporary relief or a return to superhero status for a battered but resilient prime minister.

Revelations of unauthorized parties at No 10 Downing Street during lockdown nearly sank Johnson after the festive season. National opinion polls showed the opposition Labor Party peaking with a 9.5% lead over the Conservatives from late January to mid-February. Even Johnson’s ratings among party loyalists have turned negative: a number of his MPs have officially backed a leadership race, and others have made it known in WhatsApp groups and the Commons tearoom gossip that they were considering dropping the pilot.

But British politics are subject to sudden change and Labor’s lead in the polls has now been reduced to 5%. Johnson’s clarion calls to defend Ukraine saw his fortunes rebound. The controversies over parties and whether the Prime Minister was “ambushed by a (birthday) cake” seem innocuous when confronted with a real war in Eastern Europe. A poll of party members this week saw Johnson’s personal standing rise 15 points, returning to positive territory.

And without a doubt, Johnson has been lucky on the home front as well. The popularity of his once highly anticipated successor Rishi Sunak is plummeting. The Chancellor’s spring financial statement last week was not well received by friends and foes alike. Almost four-fifths of voters called it an inadequate response to the pressing cost of living crisis that has seen energy bills soar. This was deemed “unfair” and Sunak, a polished technocrat, seemed to miss the point.

The Chancellor’s personal wealth has since become a hot topic. A former Goldman Sachs banker, Sunak is wealthy on his own, but not half as wealthy as his wealthier wife Akshata Murthy. She owns £690 million ($897 million) in her father’s information technology company, Infosys, but is domiciled in India. This means that she does not need to pay UK tax on dividends from the holding.

The legal arrangement was openly declared when Sunak first became minister in 2016. But as tax hikes announced last year finally start to hit voters, Labor are rejoicing at the Chancellor’s embarrassment . And it would only be human for Johnson to rejoice to see his most credible rival distressed.

According to polls, British voters blame the cost of living crisis on Covid (62%) and Ukraine (57%) rather than the Prime Minister personally (51%). Can Johnson’s luck last?

Local elections held across the country on May 5 will be the test.

“Partygate” has returned to the headlines after all. Police belatedly fine those who broke lockdown rules at No 10, reigniting the most damaging accusation against the Tories – that there is ‘one rule for them and another for everyone else’. The favorable tax treatment of Sunak’s wife also fits into this narrative. His “non-dom” status is hardly an option open to most voters.

Johnson, however, will be marketed by his party as a statesman. Forty years ago, the successful campaign to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina saved Margaret Thatcher despite record unemployment in her country.

Voters rally to the flag when the government takes a stand against a foreign power, but this time around Labor was also more cautious in beating the patriotic drum (in 1982 its peace wing was loud and its leader seemed weak). The opposition is calling for even tougher sanctions against Russia and blames the government for admitting so few Ukrainian refugees to the UK despite its promises.

As a biographer of Winston Churchill, Johnson knows that success in war does not guarantee victory in peace. Britain’s WWII leader is honored for his inspirational leadership against the Nazis, but his people forced him out of office shortly after his victory. Unlike his Labor opponents, Churchill offered no convincing vision of a fairer Britain in peacetime. What is Johnson? Like Churchill in 1945, the prime minister is just offering more of the same – himself.

In truth, his great work, love it or hate it, was Brexit. But that mission was accomplished in early 2020, leaving only the trailing threads of messy implementation. The pandemic, despite Johnson’s awkward performance during the outbreak, and the war in Ukraine conveniently filled the political vacuum. Otherwise, the prime minister’s trajectory has been dictated by internal party scandals and rebellions.

Where is the renewal and reform agenda needed to boost productivity and compensate for the loss of access to the European single market post-Brexit?

On Thursday, for example, the government’s much-vaunted energy security strategy was finally released. It had all the substance of a press release. There was also the familiar bend to a handful of Tory MPs in rural seats that could rock a leadership election, but no change to the planning system that blocks the development of onshore wind, the fastest way to provide cheap renewable energy.

This perception of domestic drift could come back to haunt the gifted but distracted British leader. In the United States, President Biden finds his approval ratings stuck near their lowest point, despite his steady handling of the Ukraine crisis. Main Street is unimpressed.

Still, until Tory MPs sign letters calling for a leadership election, Johnson is a happy man. On May 5, his party will observe the results with a slanted eye. He better not disappoint.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Only one thing will help Ukraine now. Arms: Thérèse Raphaël

• Britain becomes a nightmare for people trying to rent a house: Marcus Ashworth and Stuart Trow

• The back door that prevents the delivery of Russian oil to Europe: Javier Blas

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of The Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was previously its chief political commentator. He is a director on the board of the Times Newspapers.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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