PM sinks into swamp of lies and infighting

Sunk?: Johnson has been prime minister for less than two years (with apologies to Jake Fuller).

Is this the endgame for Boris Johnson? This morning, pressure is mounting on Britain’s leader from every corner. Will the ultimate survivor find a way to claw his way out of the quagmire?

In Britain, Prime Minister’s Questions is a ritual that dates back 140 years. But in all that time, rarely has anyone been under so much pressure, from so many different quarters, as Boris Johnson will be when he stands up in the House of Commons to take questions today.

Almost every day for the last week, a new crisis has crashed over 10 Downing Street.

First there were questions over texts that Johnson had exchanged with billionaire manufacturer James Dyson. That was followed by claims that he had broken the ministerial code by failing to declare funds for his official flat.

Then the quote that has dominated the news coverage since Monday: can it be true that Johnson shouted he would “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” rather than impose a third lockdown?

And yesterday The Times put another nail in the coffin, reporting that he had wanted to “let Covid rip”.

But Johnson’s conduct was already under scrutiny long before these stories, over his affair with entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri. Many believe that, as in classical tragedy, Johnson’s decline stems directly from the flaws in his character.

Many historians have pointed out that Britain’s longest-serving prime ministers such as Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and William Gladstone all led dull private lives. In British public life, being boring is an asset.

Johnson has always been more colourful, and many thought this was one of his strengths: voters had already priced in his chaotic personality, so they were not shocked by new scandals in his private life.

But critics claim that what makes him likeable to voters also makes him a bad prime minister: he is impatient with detail, lazy and incapable of taking things seriously. He is famously economical with the truth.

Now Johnson is facing the consequences: when he denies that he ever said “let the bodies pile high”, or that he broke the rules over his flat, the press and the public simply do not believe him any more.

Johnson compares himself with Winston Churchill, whose legendary drunkenness did not stop him from being the most popular prime minister in history. But there is much more scrutiny of the prime minister’s behaviour now than there was in the 1950s. Johnson’s failings cannot be hushed up the way Churchill’s were.

Instead, Johnson could end his career more like his Labour predecessor Harold Wilson in 1976 – exhausted, paranoid and mistrusted.

Yet he has defied political gravity before: when he crashed out of the Conservative leadership race in 2016, and when he resigned after a tumultuous tenure as Foreign Secretary in 2018.

Both times, he came roaring back. He could still survive this latest crisis.

Is this the endgame for Boris Johnson?

Rise and fall

Yes, say some. Johnson is increasingly isolated, his support dwindling in the press and Parliament. And the Conservative Party is notoriously ruthless: if it thinks a party leader might be costing it support, it will dump them in a heartbeat. Johnson himself does not seem to enjoy the day-to-day work of being prime minister, and might be glad of an opportunity to exit the stage.

Not at all, say others. The most remarkable feature of modern British politics is the ability of the Conservative Party to poll above 40% no matter what. So far, there is little indication that Johnson’s crisis is actually damaging the party’s support. Johnson’s other scandals have tended to blow over sooner or later: by the next election, the public may barely even remember them.

You Decide

  1. Is it important for politicians to tell the truth? Why?
  2. Are politicians usually authors of their own downfall, or are they more frequently victims of events beyond their control?

Activities

  1. Write a diary entry from the perspective of a politician who is about to leave office for good.
  2. In small groups, pick a historical prime minister. Create a short profile of them. Include their party, the major events of their tenure and what ultimately brought them down.

Some People Say...

“The first day you're a leader is the beginning of the end of your political career.”

Jenny Shipley (1952 – ), New Zealand former politician.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that political scandals only make a difference when they change the public’s perception of a politician. The reason why this new story might be damaging is that up to now, most people have felt that even if the government has not been handling the pandemic well, the mistakes it has made have been honest ones. If it turns out Johnson actually rejected scientific advice, sacrificing thousands of lives to save the economy, they might turn against him.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over who might replace Johnson as prime minister. Some think the involvement of Dominic Cummings in this episode suggests that Michael Gove, an ally of Cummings, is ultimately pulling the strings, trying to oust Johnson and take his place. But others think Gove might not reap the benefits of Johnson’s removal: the most popular cabinet member right now is the ambitious chancellor Rishi Sunak, who could beat Gove and his other rivals to the top job.

Word Watch

Prime Minister’s Questions
An event held every Wednesday lunchtime in the House of Commons in which the prime minister answers questions from MPs. It began under Gladstone in 1881. Until 1997, it was held every Tuesday and Thursday.
James Dyson
The founder of the Dyson hoover-manufacturing company. Texts that he exchanged with Johnson seemed to suggest that the prime minister intervened to ensure that some of Dyson’s employees would not have to pay extra taxes.
Ministerial code
A document describing the ethics and standards that ministers should be held to. A minister who breaks it is usually expected to resign.
Official flat.
Although the official residence of the prime minister is 10 Downing Street, most recent prime ministers have chosen to live in Number 11, which is larger. Johnson’s refurbishments of the flat are thought to have cost £200,000.
Jennifer Arcuri.
Johnson had an affair with Arcuri between 2012 and 2016 while he was Mayor of London, and still married to his ex-wife. Her company received funds from the mayoral office in 2013, and some have alleged a conflict of interests.
William Gladstone
In the late 19th Century Gladstone was prime minister four times for a total of 12 years in office. He is regarded as one of the inventors of modern Liberalism.
Economical with the truth.
A phrase invented by Edmund Burke used ironically about someone who is lying.
Harold Wilson
The Labour Party’s second prime minister. He served from 1964 until 1970, and then again between 1974 and 1976. Like Johnson, towards the end of his tenure he was thought to be too much under the sway of his close advisors.

Subjects

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