Boris Johnson’s Houdini Act Loses Its Magic Touch
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Boris Johnson has always had a promiscuous relationship with the truth. The media knows it, his Conservative party knows it and the voters know it. That was priced in when he won an overwhelming victory at the last general election in 2019. So why is a reputation for dishonesty hurting him now?
From the outset of his political career, it was apparent that Johnson’s word was not his bond. As a journalist on the make, he promised his newspaper proprietor that he would never seek a seat in the House of Commons if he was made the editor of a weekly magazine. Once in the post, he rapidly sought the nomination for a safe Conservative constituency and was duly elected MP. His boss was amused by his bare-faced cheek.
Later, when confronted by the newspapers about an extramarital affair, Johnson famously lied, saying: “It is complete balderdash. It is an inverted pyramid of piffle.” After the affair was confirmed by his mistress’s mother, he was sacked from the Tory shadow cabinet. But a disaster that would have sunk most politicians only delayed his ascent up the greasy pole.
Today, Johnson’s truthfulness has once again been found wanting. His explanations for the spending on his official No. 10 residence and his entourage’s breaches of pandemic restrictions aren’t stacking up.
Hitherto, Johnson’s media cheerleaders, his party and the majority of voters have backed him to the hilt. He is a winner, a cheerful sinner who puts the Technicolor into black and white politics. He got Brexit done, he trounced a hard-left opponent and he tickled the humor of working-class voters who would once have preferred a donkey with a Labour rosette over a Conservative candidate. His blend of cultural conservatism and lavish state spending is a winning formula.
But it is the loss of his popular touch, as much as his economy with the truth, that is putting the prime minister in peril.
On Thursday, Johnson faced fresh questions over an expensive refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. The Conservative Party has been fined 17,800 pounds ($24,000) by the Electoral Commission for “failing to accurately report a donation” that paid for it. Labour says that new information revealed by the commission suggests that the PM lied to his own standards adviser, Christopher Geidt, about how the work was funded. Geidt is reportedly close to quitting.
Taken in isolation, this story wouldn’t be a hanging offense. Johnson’s No. 10 living quarters are dingy and cramped by the standards of most Western democratic leaders. The prime minister is forced to live over “the shop.” This week, his wife gave birth to their second child and his family needs a comfortable home. Even if a political donor helped revamp his flat, Johnson stands to make no personal profit. But if he is caught telling a lie about it to the House of Commons, the consequences could be severe.
Johnson’s real danger lies elsewhere. By definition, a populist politician must work with the grain of public opinion. The prime minister, however, has been outraging it. He has been behaving like a member of the entitled establishment elite that he mocked in the Brexit referendum campaign.
Voters don’t particularly mind rule-bending, but they hate politicians who behave as if there is one law for them and one for everyone else.
Johnson’s current round of troubles first began when he abused his large parliamentary majority to let off Owen Paterson, a close ally found guilty by the official ethical standards body of lobbying for money. The Tory press couldn’t swallow it, and the opinion polls turned against him. Conservative MPs were furious, too — they felt they had been bamboozled into voting for a measure that invited punishment from their constituents at the next general election.
Similarly, revelations that ministers and their advisers broke social distancing regulations have cut through with voters only intermittently interested in politics. Over the last 18 months, thousands of people have been fined in magistrates’ courts for breaking quarantine; millions have cancelled meetings with friends and loved ones outside their homes. Johnson’s former health secretary, his chief political strategist and one of his leading medical advisors flouted the rules they helped draw up and were forced to resign amid public indignation.
Johnson must have seen the writing on the wall. Yet with or without his knowledge, his staff were holding parties in No. 10 this time last year as the rest of the country hunkered down. No wonder voters, many now forced to abandon their own Christmas festivities for a second year running, have been enraged.
Retribution is likely to be swift. Having conceded an official inquiry into breaches of lockdown in Whitehall, forced resignations may climb into the double digits. Johnson’s chief spin doctor, Jack Doyle, is accused of presiding over one holiday party; other ministers may have been involved.
Amid the chaos, the Conservative right is seizing its moment. Its libertarian tendency opposes tighter preemptive social restrictions to combat the omicron variant of Covid-19. The U.K. was supposed to be a beacon of freedom this winter as continental Europe pulled down the shutters. The economy’s fragile service-led recovery is likely to take a battering.
Peter Bone, a veteran Conservative MP, has stated on the record that he will submit a letter of no confidence in Johnson if he proposes mandatory vaccinations, as in Austria. In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Mark Harper, chair of the group of lockdown-skeptic Tory MPs, asked, “Why should people listen to the prime minister’s instructions to follow the rules when people inside Number 10 Downing Street don’t do so?”
Public opinion will back the prime minister’s so-called Plan B tightening of social distancing rules, but the Tory right (to whom he owes his leadership), may make him uncomfortably reliant on Labour support to get his way in Parliament.
Many other Tory MPs without ideological convictions, however, take an entirely transactional view of their allegiance to Johnson. If the prime minister continues to lose popularity with the voters, his MPs will be looking for another election winner to replace him. Disloyalty is the secret of the ruling party’s success.
Johnson is the Harry Houdini of British politics, forever escaping from traps of his own making. This is one of his most hair-raising adventures so far, but you can bet there will be more to come. Unnecessary fibs are unlikely to topple him, but contempt for his voters will do the job.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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