News from Nowhere: Losing Touch
The man’s not a menace to the integrity of the UK's democracy; he’s a form of comic relief from the anxieties of our humdrum daily lives.
Love him or hate him, it was once difficult to deny that Boris Johnson had that magic touch so desired by the key players in the political limelight. He was, like Donald Trump, one of those charismatic, Teflon-coated politicians, a figure of extraordinarily eccentric conduct to whom – despite numerous allegations of improprieties – nothing ever really seemed to stick.
He has always been ‘Boris’ to his supporters in the media, who counted him as one of their own (he had been a journalist and a TV panel show host) and to his adoring fans in the Conservative Party that he reshaped in his own image. He has even been just ‘Boris’ to those few members of the general public who had managed to remain immune to his personal charms. He wasn’t seen as a ruthlessly ambitious, disloyal and disingenuous political operator, a master of spin, obfuscation, bigotry and deceit, but as a loveable, bumbling teddy bear of a man, a harmless, upper-class chap who used obscure and archaic language, whether he was speaking his own unique version of Latin or his own unique version of English.
Mr. Johnson has weathered various political storms, from scandals around who bore the costs of the refurbishment of his apartment to controversies relating to his explicit willingness to breach international law in relation to the post-Brexit agreements he had brokered with the European Union. His political fortunes have somehow survived his tendency to make horribly ill-considered remarks, comments which might reasonably be considered with an unfortunate frequency either racist or Islamophobic (or both) in both content and tone. His reputation for professional dishonesty and for marital infidelities only seems, like Donald Trump’s, to have increased his attraction to certain portions of his electorate. He has famously taken free holidays in such places as Spain and Mustique thanks to the generosity of his rich friends, about whose interests he may not always have been entirely open. An investigation into the allocation of public funds to an American businesswoman who claims to have had an intimate relationship with Mr. Johnson when he was Mayor of London is still ongoing.
On 9 November, it was reported that Covid-19 vaccinations were to become compulsory for all frontline staff in England’s National Health Service. That same day, Britain’s newspapers displayed images of Boris Johnson visiting a hospital in the north-east of the country – pictures in which the Prime Minister is clearly seen not wearing a face-covering, in breach of national coronavirus safety guidance for healthcare settings, or (as the Labour Party’s health spokesperson put it) ‘irresponsibly parading around a hospital without a mask’. Indeed, it was later reported that he had been asked three times to wear his mask during the visit but had not complied.
Mr. Johnson would normally have got away with this, but this time the media’s normally indulgent mood seemed somewhat changed. This was just a week after he had been criticized for failing to wear a mask (and for falling asleep) at the COP26 summit in Glasgow; but, more importantly, it was at a point in his premiership in which even his closest allies in the British press were beginning to show their doubts about his moral leadership of the nation. Had his life-long hubris finally started to catch up with him?
It had all started so quietly. An MP called Owen Paterson – a member of Mr. Johnson’s party, an old friend and colleague of the Prime Minister, and himself a former Cabinet Minister – had been caught taking rather large sums of money from two companies on whose behalf he had been lobbying government departments, apparently through the use of the facilities of his parliamentary office. This was hardly an unprecedented scandal, and would not in itself have posed a particular problem for Boris Johnson's credibility. The problem arose, however, when the Prime Minister used his authority to sway his party’s MPs to vote for a parliamentary motion which would have allowed Mr. Paterson to have escaped serious sanctions, by seeking to review the whole set of rules of conduct for those same MPs.
This obviously did not look good, and anyone with any decent political sense, or any sense of appropriate public conduct, should have seen the backlash coming from afar. These Tory politicians were being pushed by their leader to vote to undermine the processes of independent scrutiny which oversaw their own conduct, in a bid to save the political career of a man who had been clearly shown to have broken the rules of parliamentary conduct on numerous occasions. The government’s strategy had ‘cover-up’ written all over it – in big bold whitewash. It was such a blatant abuse of power that it seemed barely comprehensible that anyone other than a preening, narcissistic egomaniac would have thought they could have got away with it. Unfortunately for the Conservative Party, their leader pretty much fitted that description.
This utter travesty of the proper parliamentary process resulted in the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, describing Mr. Johnson’s actions in this matter as ‘corrupt and contemptible’. It also provoked the former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major to call the Prime Minister’s tactics ‘shameful’. Another former Conservative Prime Minister, Thersa May, described the incident as ‘ill-judged and just plain wrong’. One of Boris Johnson’s own senior government ministers, Stephen Barclay, informed parliament that this whole incident had been a regrettable mistake. When the Prime Minister himself failed to attend the House of Commons for the resulting debate (instead of choosing to court questionable publicity three hundred miles away on his poorly planned hospital visit), a senior member of his own party told parliament that ‘he should come and apologize’ – as that was ‘the right thing to do in terms of demonstrating leadership’. A few days later, Britain’s Chancellor Rishi Sunak added that the government in which he served in a leading position would have to ‘do better’.
On 9 November, the BBC’s political editor suggested that this situation had demonstrated that Boris Johnson could no longer continue to act with total impunity. That same day, the British papers took a harder line on the Prime Minister and his associates. The left-leaning Guardian newspaper led with the news that the Labour leader had accused Johnson of dragging his own party ‘through the sewers’. More significantly, three of the country’s most popular right-wing papers, traditionally loyal to Mr. Johnson and his Conservative Party, went robustly on the attack. The headline splashed across the front of The Times announced his own party’s ‘anger as PM skips sleaze showdown in Commons’. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail revealed the huge income of another close Conservative colleague of the Prime Minister (‘Top MP earns a fortune for working in tax haven’), while the Daily Express was clear in its message to Downing Street: ‘Just say sorry for the mess, Prime Minister’. Even these Tory loyalists could evidently see that, as standards of living in the UK are in danger of dropping off a cliff-edge, and as many ordinary British people will find it difficult to heat their homes and feed their families this winter, it seemed impossible to defend to their readers some of their democratic representatives’ ways of syphoning hundreds of thousands of pounds into their own pockets, in deals to lobby on behalf of private companies, or indeed to offer legal advice to the government of the Virgin Islands (and to eschew constituency duties to travel to that Caribbean paradise).
Three days later, the Daily Mail added that, having always been an electoral asset to his party, the Prime Minister must not now become a liability – a ‘ballot-box burden’. That same morning, the deeply conservative Daily Telegraph argued that the Tories were in the process of taking back control of their party from Boris Johnson, after these latest events had led many members to believe that he could no longer be trusted.
Of course, there are honest, decent Tories and Tory-supporters out there, and it appears that the overweening arrogance and the rash and selfish actions of the Prime Minister and of some of his friends may at last have begun to push their patience too far.
So has the Conservative Party’s golden boy, its bombastic blond bombshell, finally lost his magic touch, with the press, with the British people and even with his own party? Very possibly not – at least, not straight away. But if Mr. Johnson doesn’t swiftly modify his approach – if he’s unable to dial down the noise of his bullish self-belief – he may yet find himself in real political jeopardy in the not-too-distant future. Having got away with so very much throughout his political career, it might just be that, in his overbearing self-confidence, this Prime Minister has, at last, pushed his luck too far, and is starting to shed those very key allies who sustained his rise to power.
On 10 November, Boris Johnson had been forced to make an extraordinary declaration: ‘I genuinely believe that the UK is not remotely a corrupt country and I genuinely think that our institutions are not corrupt.’ While there may be many who would doubt how genuine any of Mr. Johnson’s statements might be, we may still be able to agree with the sentiment at the heart of his statement. It is precisely because the country and its core institutions are not in fact fundamentally corrupt that we are able to recognize corruption – and are shocked by it – when we see it; and in the recent actions of this government, the people of Britain have seen it brazen and clear.
In the immediate wake of the Owen Paterson case, the media’s renewed appetite for stories of corrupt politicians has been liberally fed with accounts of the further (and rather more minor) misconduct of other members of parliament. This must come as a great relief to the government, as the press interest has started to shift away from accusations of political corruption at the heart of Downing Street to tales of the entertainingly venal and scabrous behaviour of lesser-known parliamentarians of all parties. The origin of these reports is not immediately clear, though one might hazard a reasonable guess as to where some of them may have come from. The Prime Minister has after all never been above throwing any number of his closest political allies under any conveniently passing bus.
The weekend after the height of the Paterson scandal, the Mail on Sunday reported, for example, that the Conservative Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, had taken £6 million in undeclared loans from his own company. Meanwhile, a former Tory defence minister was reported as having demanded increased military spending in parliament without bothering to mention that a jet engine firm was paying him at a premium rate of £425 per hour. It was also reported that more than £30 million has been paid in the last five years by businesses and campaign organizations to fund the activities of more than 700 so-called ‘All-Party Parliamentary Groups’ – unofficial groups of parliamentarians whose focus can encompass serious issues like health, education and the environment to such more frivolous interests as beer, wines and spirits, jazz music and the sports of cricket, snooker and darts.
At the same time, it was alleged that a number of particularly generous Conservative party donors (whose gifts totalled more than £3 million) had received peerages, fourteen MPs were renting out their London homes while claiming on expenses the cost of renting other properties in which to live, and three members of parliament were accused of riotous drunkenness on a flight to Gibraltar. A Labour MP and a Liberal Democrat MP both admitted using their parliamentary offices for the same paid meeting; the leader of the Labour Party was said to have used his office in parliament for political campaigning on Zoom, and the leader of the Scottish Conservatives apologized for failing to declare payments for a second job as a football referee. All in all, these (mostly) relatively minor transgressions and indiscretions served to distract media attention from the much bigger story, the government’s original attempt to subvert parliamentary protocols to avoid the prospect of triggering an unpredictable and potentially politically costly by-election. The timing of these various reports – reports which might undermine public confidence in the institutions of democracy rather than in the Prime Minister himself – appeared particularly convenient for Mr. Johnson.
A few days later, Johnson again attempted to divert the course of the story when he proposed a complete ban on MPs working as paid political consultants, as if the national outrage had been caused by such consultancies rather than by his own attempts to subvert institutional processes for the monitoring and maintenance of parliamentary standards.
On 15 November, the Daily Mail reported that Boris Johnson had at last admitted that he had ‘bungled the handling of the sleaze scandal’. Two days later, he, at last, told parliament that it had been ‘a mistake’, and went on to try to dodge the blame for the strategy, claiming vaguely that the idea had been ‘put to [him] by colleagues’. In the same parliamentary session, he also described his failure to wear a mask on his hospital visit the previous week as a mistake. With his characteristic fondness for flamboyant metaphors, he later that day conceded to a committee of backbench Conservative MPs that he had ‘crashed the car into a ditch’.
Everything, it seemed, was just a big mistake. ‘Oops,’ he seemed to say. In doing so, Mr. Johnson appeared to be attempting to recalibrate the media narrative – to rewrite history – by again invoking and asserting the cosy and reassuring image of himself as that shambolic but benevolent ragamuffin of a Prime Minister, a charmingly boyish, loveable rogue, a kind of curious cross between Winston Churchill, Winnie-the-Pooh and Chewbacca, rather than the self-serving, power-hungry opportunist and Machiavellian schemer he had briefly revealed himself to be.
The man’s not a menace to the integrity of our democracy; he’s a form of comic relief from the anxieties of our humdrum daily lives… Making us think this is Mr. Johnson’s extraordinary skill and his most celebrated conjuring trick, a consummate act of political sleight-of-hand, as he once more ruffles his unkempt hair and launches again into another cascade of endearingly meaningless waffle, and again and again the great British public and the great British press forgive him just one more time and give him just one more last chance.
Just days after his reputation for laziness, incompetence, dishonesty and general buffoonery had prevented any real hope of a meaningful deal coming out of the COP26 summit in Glasgow – the meeting that might in other hands have helped to start to save the world – we (whatever our natural political allegiances) should, of course, be utterly ashamed of ourselves if we let this grinning charlatan get away with his duplicitous hokum yet again. But he will probably soon do or say something that makes us chuckle, and, our hearts warmed by his latest piece of tomfoolery, we probably will all do so once more… just once more… letting the secretly malicious, fundamentally vicious court jester stay on a little while longer as king.