United kingDom

Time to sing the blues

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 21.01.2022

Is the beginning of 2022 about to mark the beginning of the end of Teflon man, as both his admirers and his critics have liked to call Boris Johnson ever since he entered the political arena? How often can anyone be written off, but then simply lie low for a while and come back in full glory?

I do wonder whether it is a scandal too far this time. The PM was already in an incredibly odd situation weeks ago when he faced a massive Tory rebellion and had to rely on the Labour Party to vote Covid plan B through in the House of Commons. As usual, he took it on the chin, pretended that nothing was wrong and even had the guts to blame Keir Starmer the following day for playing party politics. It must have been quite humiliating, though, for a leader who came in with an 83-strong majority in 2019 to see his own MPs desert him so massively. They say that the Tory Party are ruthless once they decide that their PM has become a liability. Just think of how they dropped Margaret Thatcher, who had been a brilliant vote-winner for years!

Things seem to be moving faster with Johnson. When the result of the North Shropshire by-election was announced in December, many Conservatives saw the loss of a seat they had held for almost 200 years as a wake-up call. Incidentally, the by-election had to be organised because Owen Paterson, the local MP, was found to have lobbied the government on behalf of paying clients. At first, Johnson tried to change the disciplinary system in order to save a loyal ally from being punished but then had to give in to the national outcry. Still, in classic Boris-fashion, he later blamed the loss of the seat on journalists for concentrating on rumours around Downing Street parties rather than on the successful rollout of the booster jabs. Ominously, the crisis inside the Tory party deepened further two days after the by-election debacle when pugnacious Lord Frost, who negotiated Britain’s departure from the EU as Brexit Minister, resigned with immediate effect.

Still, there was happy news, too, in the middle of this mess as the PM has become a father again. Baby Romy is home now, so she has been able to admire the gold wallpaper which a generous Tory donor initially paid for. The over-the-top refurbishment of the Number 11 flat hit the headlines in April 2021. After that came more sleaze in many different guises. Most prominently, perhaps, around Covid contracts for family members, friends and even neighbours of certain ministers. In 2020 there was also the desperate lying around the Barnard Castle ‘eye test’ of Dominic Cummings, the former chief aide who has long become a kind of nemesis for his erstwhile boss. He keeps attacking both Boris and his wife Carrie, a former Tory press officer, – rather like a maddened rottweiler with the clearest of strategic minds as he drip-feeds damaging information via tweets.

More recently, there has been Partygate or, as Number 10 would have it, there have been questions around ‘gatherings’ that took place in Whitehall while London was in lockdown. Nice euphemism, though it is failing to take people in, especially after the leak of the video of a mock press conference held in December 2020. Staff can be seen joking about a lockdown-breaking party in Downing Street, the kind of party Johnson denied had ever happened. Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, who was meant to examine whether there had been any illegal celebrations, had to resign once it emerged that his team had also held a soirée. Later, a leaked email revealed that Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary, invited more than 100 staff to a drinks event in the Number 10 garden in May 2020. At the time, social mixing was prohibited; in fact, you were not even allowed to visit sick or dying relatives. About 40 officials and advisers attended – among them Johnson and Carrie Symonds, whom he married in 2021. The embattled PM has repeatedly refused to comment on what was going on. And even after a half-hearted Commons apology on January 12, he is not off the hook, with bombshell allegations about more lockdown-busting parties and regular drinking sessions known as ‘wine-time Fridays’ piling further pressure on him.

The list is so long that Sue Gray, the veteran civil servant now leading the inquiry into these antics, is likely to have to delay the publication of her findings. Two of the boozy events were held on the eve of Prince Philip’s austere, socially distanced funeral, and even though Johnson himself did not dance the night away at either, he has had to make a public apology to the Queen. As a result, Tory panic is mounting. It is going to be some time before their leader can relax and start smirking once more in front of whatever TV camera comes his way!

Crazy times, indeed – what with the defenestration of Prince Andrew happening in one fell swoop up the road at Buckingham Palace a week ago. This had been a long time coming, and once the Palace decided that the situation had got utterly untenable, the verdict was brutal and clear-cut. As a contrast, in febrile Westminster, the Furies keep targeting Boris revelation after revelation, blow after blow, shining light on the moral vacuum he has created at the very heart of government. The spell is broken, and it appears that whatever the PM touches these days explodes in his face. No wonder he recently sought solace in Peppa Pig World, yet not without offending the CBI (the Confederation of British Industry), to whom he described his visit in a car-crash conference speech the following day. As you would expect, the august audience of senior business leaders was not amused.

A clown, a joker, an entertainer…. Maverick Johnson is bound to be a hoot on the after-dinner speech circuit, so he does have a future elsewhere. Right now, however, he is out of harmony with the electorate as well as with an increasing number of his own MPs, who feel that his authority is shredded and that his brazen double standards might cost them their seats at the next election.

Finally, if you step back for a moment and look at the Downing Street fiasco from a distance, there is one depressing lesson Johnson’s career teaches us in an altogether different context, namely that of gender (in)equality: Or can you think of a woman Prime Minister who has had seven children with three different men and lots of affairs along the way? A woman with such a tempestuous private life would be regarded with nervousness and suspicion by the political establishment. Yet she could hardly be a looser cannon than freewheeling Boris Johnson.

Happy New Year!

Janine Goedert
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