Portrait

Another fine mess

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 26.06.2020

Currently the UK seems to be facing nightmare after nightmare – with Boris Johnson at the helm. The little boy who dreamt of being world king became the man who fought to be PM. Yet now that he has reached the very top, he fails to live up to most people’s expectations. Any modern-day Shakespeare is bound to find plenty of inspiration here!

The Johnson Family Coming first and winning prizes mattered more than anything else in that hothouse. Both Boris’s parents, Charlotte and Stanley, went to Oxford, as did their four children. The greatest irony in the Brexit context remains the fact that Stanley worked for the European Commission in the 1970s, so Boris attended the European School in Brussels for a few years before he was packed off to a preparatory boarding school in England after his mother, who suffers from depression, had a nervous breakdown.

Stanley was a father so pushy that he had Ashdown House prep school change their policy and also offer a place to Rachel, Boris’s sister, though they only took boys at the time. The Johnson parents divorced in 1980. Charlotte, a painter, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when she was forty. Both parents remarried, and Stanley had two more children.

Education Boris went on to Eton and then read Classics at Balliol College, Oxford. In both places he was a contemporary of David Cameron’s. Remember that Bullingdon Club photo – young, blasé and privileged, miles away from the recent “man of the people” shtick.

The Love Life How many children does BJ have? – It is the one question that will never appear in a pub quiz since no one knows the answer. Yet lying about affairs and multiple girlfriends has never harmed this Teflon man. He might have lost various jobs on the way, but always bounced back with the same aplomb after lying low for some time. Ruthlessness wrapped in Latin quotes and catchy slogans – to be repeated until he chickens come home to roost.

The Party The Conservative Party adopted the buffoonish feel-good politician as their best hope to win the 2019 general election. Johnson duly delivered – ending up with an 80-strong majority. But that was then. Now many Tory MPs complain about the government’s handling of the Covid19 outbreak. Besides, they feel that they are but rarely consulted; some accuse the PM of throttling business by not lifting lockdown measures sooner. The latter’s cluelessness about health policy is making a whole Party feel restless and scratch their heads. Clearly, the sheen has come off.

Cummings Is the chief adviser really the dark force at the heart of Downing Street? Rumour has it that Boris cannot do without Dom, who serves as his ideas man and who routinely shelters him from gaffes.

But now there is another chapter to the Cummings saga: Not only did he drive his family from London to Durham at a time when he believed both he and his wife were ill; he also took his wife and son to a castle on her birthday, seemingly to test his eyesight. All this happened at the height of lockdown when everyone else was only allowed to walk to their local supermarket!

The most loyal ministers were swiftly paraded in front of TV cameras to defend the indefensible. Luckily for the government, the Durham police played into the politicians’ hands. In the end, the senior strategist and his abrasive style survived, but Johnson’s popularity figures plunged.

Perhaps the most revealing clue about the man is the fact that during that surreal press conference held in the Downing Street rose garden (for which he made journalists wait for over 40 minutes in true diva-like style) Cummings bragged about warning against a pandemic over a year ago, only for journalists to reveal that the post on his personal blog from March 2019 had been tinkered with this April to add a reference to the Sars coronavirus. How brazen and self-obsessed can you get?

“We follow the science.” Of course, Johnson keeps saying that it is too early for international comparisons, but wherever you look and however you interpret the figures, England has done appallingly, ending up with the highest death toll in Europe: no PPE for health and care workers on the frontlines, no protective ring around care homes, Bame staff dying at a shockingly high rate….

While the PM himself was battling coronavirus in St Thomas’ Hospital, the country held its breath, but since then more and more uncomfortable questions have kept cropping up. For weeks now many commentators have identified the hapless Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, as the most likely fall guy in this terrible mess.

Clearly, at least some of the scientists and health officials that ministers flank themselves with so proudly at the daily coronavirus briefings have had enough. In carefully phrased yet uncompromising comments, two of them distanced themselves from the Cummings fiasco. Not surprisingly, they have not been seen at those lecterns ever since!

The Government Johnson’s government is often described as second-rate.

It has certainly been shocking to see several ministers repeatedly flounder in TV interviews during the current crisis. Some resorted to grinning or nervous laughter, exposing their own ignorance and what came across as perfect insouciance. As a result, these very TV programmes have been declared off-limits by the Downing Street machine.

It appears that being a staunch Brexiteer was the key qualification for a job at the Cabinet table: Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove (Johnson’s erstwhile ally, then rival, now ally once more) and Gavin Williamson, the Education secretary, who is best known for keeping a pet tarantula called Cronus…

Rishi Sunak is the only one that escapes sneering criticism in the British media, but then he is in charge of the money and is already being talked about as a possible successor to the top man!

The Language “Fantastic!” “World-beating!” “Superb!” – Hyperbole, here we come!

Yes, Johnson’s rhetoric is much more sophisticated, but it can also be as repetitive and absurd as Trump’s. He loves to beat the nationalist drum not only by having his grey RAF plane repainted red, white and blue and by announcing a “world-beating” home-made track and trace programme (which, by the way, has just been abandoned), but by spreading optimism all round.

And then, the PM is certainly not a details man. While Theresa May was famous for swotting away at reports and briefs, Johnson prefers to take time off. Not surprisingly, perhaps, since he’s just become a father again!

U-Turns Let’s just mention two of the most humbling ones: First came the scrapping of the NHS surcharge for foreign health workers and social care staff coming from outside the European Economic Area. Since, like everyone else, these staff are already paying tax and national insurance, they have, in fact, been charged twice for any NHS treatment ever since the fee was introduced in 2015.

Clapping for carers and other key workers on Thursdays and then making them pay extra to use the very service they are working for became untenable once Covid19 struck. It appeared to penalise people who were risking their lives day in day out. Yet the previous afternoon Johnson had still been defending the fee in the Commons as the right way forward to boost NHS funds. What a difference a day makes in politics!

And then over a week ago Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United forward, took on the government with his campaign for free school meals to also be provided for the poorest families over the summer holidays this year. Initially Number 10 rejected the plea, only to quickly retreat once Tory MPs threatened to rebel against the government.

The Opposition Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader, might turn into Boris’s nemesis. The former human rights barrister is the very opposite of the PM in many ways: he lacks bonhomie and smiles but rarely. “Touchy-feely” is not an adjective you would ever use to describe him. Yet the contrast between the two men might ultimately work in Labour’s favour as it highlights the current PM’s flaws. In any case, the latter has started to feel awkwardly self-defensive, even petulant, when facing criticism at PMQs, the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons.

The Future? Johnson has particularly battered looks these days, and it is not just due to the trademark ruffled hair! Optimism is in short supply wherever you look. In fact, many fear that the Corona mess will swiftly be followed by a Brexit hullabaloo. The bumbling showman with the cavalier attitude must be the only person left on earth to still see himself in Churchillian terms.

Janine Goedert
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