Pat Stack recounts Boris Johnson’s bumblingly disastrous track record during his overlong stay in Westminster.
So it’s now officially endorsed by ‘the mother of parliaments’: Boris Johnson is a liar. To be honest they may as well have announced night follows day or water is wet.
Throughout his career as a journalist and a politician, and indeed in his private life, Johnson has repeatedly and obviously lied. Yet his sense of self entitlement was such that he believed, and for a long time with good reason, that he could get away with it through ‘charm’, bluster or a few well-chosen Latin phrases.
It says much about the British class system that this man’s crass stupidity, wanton dishonesty, complete absence of attention to detail, utter self-indulgence and naked ambition could be laughed off as good old fashioned ‘British eccentricity’. Many of those now expressing outrage were guilty of pandering to this ridiculous man. This played no small part in encouraging his rise.
To take an example in the 2017 general election, Diane Abbot got pilloried for days for mangling figures about the proposed policing costs in Labour’s manifesto. Three days later Johnson was interviewed and was unable to remember almost any of the pledges in the Tory manifesto, yet after some giggling on behalf of a few in the media, all was instantly forgiven with a ‘oh well that’s Boris what a hoot’. The propensity of the British media to laugh it all off was extraordinary.
This was all par for the course, and it wasn’t just the Tory right that let him off. He had been a guest host on Have I Got News For You. He was frequently cosied up to by Laura Kunsberg, Andrew Marr and others at the BBC. Everyone who was anyone apparently indulged him. He seemed to be, and seem to feel he was, made of Teflon: nothing stuck.
This in part explains his outrage at the Parliamentary Privileges Committee’s report. Despite the fact that long before they cross-examined him, let alone reached conclusions, everyone and their dog knew Johnson had lied about Partygate, that he and his hangers on had partied whilst people died without any family present, due to lockdowns Johnson had introduced.
He was still apoplectic when the committee confirmed his guilt in writing and recommended sanctions. Suddenly he decided that the committee he had appointed, a committee made up of a Tory majority including three Brexiteers, was biased, a kangaroo court, a witch hunt.
In order not to actually face parliament, he resigned as an MP. This shouldn’t come as a great shock. If there is one thing Johnson finds more difficult than telling the truth, it’s losing. He was never going to beat the Privileges Committee, which would have meant fighting a by-election in his Uxbridge constituency which he was in danger of losing. Rather than risk that, he quit. Just as he quit from the Tory leadership race following the Brexit referendum once Michael Gove withdrew his support for his nomination. Just as he withdrew from challenging Sunak following the Truss fiasco, once he knew he was unlikely to get enough votes to put the question before the party membership. When the going gets tough Johnson gets out of there.
Being Johnson, however, he couldn’t leave without playing the ever-so-rebellious public schoolboy. Hence his departing honours list.
To be clear, the whole honours system is a corrupt farce, a ridiculous and reactionary process that puts all sorts of highly dubious people into the House of Lords (i.e. gives them a say in governing the rest of us), and gives many more dubious people baubles that by their very name hark back to the days of empire, shamefully celebrating that barbaric historic heritage.
Even by those standards, Johnson managed to outdo most of his predecessors in nominating utter Tory riff raff for knighthoods and the like.
At least two of his successful nominees had been found guilty by the cops of breaking lockdown rules as part of the Partygate scandal. Another was a woman who had worked in his parliamentary office for just two years and was an intern only six years ago. She is the youngest life peer ever appointed.
As bad as his successful list was, the people who failed to get through the vetting were even worse. Nadine Norris is an MP most noted for disappearing from her job to go on to I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. She also served as a reactionary and incompetent Culture Secretary who wanted to privatise Channel Four as she mistakenly thought it was funded by tax payers.
Even worse, he wanted to give his own father a knighthood. His father being famous for almost nothing bar putting Johnson’s mother in hospital after seriously physically abusing her. Even by Johnson’s standards, rewarding a man who beat your mother up takes some surpassing.
When Tory MPs elected Johnson party leader, many did so knowing he was nowhere near up to the task (Gove had publicly said so just a few years earlier), but they did believe that he could win them an election. Having the Tories in power and saving their own seats was much more important to many of them than how they would actually run the country.
Win them the election he did, a happy coincidence of Brexit being the only real issue in the election, and a long concerted campaign by the media, the Tories, and crucially the right wing of the Labour Party to discredit Jeremy Corbyn, something they had failed to do in 2017 but had doubled down on for the 2019 election.
Such was the size of the Tory victory that in their euphoria they could see decades of unchallenged power ahead of them.
Events quickly saw things unravel.
Covid was always going to challenge governments everywhere, but thanks to Cameron and Osborne’s austerity cuts, the NHS was truly ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. That the NHS did as well as they did was down to the heroism of their staff despite, not because of, any Government actions.
All of Johnson’s weaknesses were quickly exposed by the pandemic.
His legendary laziness was marked by his failure to turn up to all the early Cobra meetings discussing how to handle the crisis, preferring to holiday and attend family events instead.
His bombast and bluster were marked by ludicrous jingoistic statements about ‘the British spirit’ as if the virus said to itself ‘oh those are the people who fought Waterloo, Trafalgar, Port Stanley. We won’t mess with them’.
Indeed he initially made light of the whole thing, telling us all not to worry, and demonstrating his own lack of concern by going round a hospital shaking everyone’s hand, not wearing a mask, etc. That behaviour came to an abrupt halt when, unsurprisingly, he contracted the virus, which darn nearly killed him.
His lack of clarity, wild swings of policy, hesitation to take scientists’ advice because his own right wing might object, surely ranked him in the top 3 or 4 world leaders, behind only Trump, Bolsonaro and possibly Modi, in proving to be utterly useless in the face of the emergency. His apologists bring up the vaccine as his great contribution but in reality this was not down to Johnson in any meaningful sense.
So, he wasn’t just incompetent and downright dangerous. ‘Let the bodies pile high,’ he is alleged to have argued at one stage in opposition to lockdowns. To add insult to injury he and his entourage were having a ball, happily partying whilst locking the rest of us in.
The lies caught up with him. Every time he denied a lie, he compounded it with another. In the end he seemed incapable of telling the truth about anything. The straw that broke the camel’s back for his term as Prime Minister was yet another lie about whether he had been warned about the sexual misconduct of a deputy chief whip he had appointed. He had, but needless to say claimed he hadn’t.
His standing was crashing in the polls, and now the MPs who had put up with his awfulness because he was a vote winner, recognised this was no longer true. A record number of ministers resigned and he was ditched.
‘Down but not out,’ he warned us, doing his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. He then bottled his attempt at a comeback. The Parliamentary Privileges Committee caught up with him. He quit parliament altogether.
‘Surely that’s him done,’ many have said, but some fearfully. Others have suggested we have not seen the last of him.
In truth it is difficult to see any way back. He is unlikely to be given a seat to stand in in the next election, and I suspect many Tory MPs who are publicly loyal to him in order to placate the old and frighteningly reactionary rump that is the Tory Party membership, are privately relieved to see the back of him.
However, such is the current bizarre state of chaos within the Tory party that you couldn’t rule anything out. The mutual hatred that exists within the party is a sight to behold. Those that would like the party to do its historical job and look after the interests of big capital, appear to be a minority among MPs and even more so amongst Party members, for whom ‘culture wars’ and expressing the anger and prejudices of the petite bourgeoisie/lower middle class seem to take precedence. Certainly amongst the membership Johnson remains hugely popular, a sort of talisman for all their collective prejudice.
Quite why the right is so enamoured with Johnson is a little difficult to explain, because in some senses he isn’t one of their own.
The Tory right itself is not singing with one voice. They all want lower taxes, and are all happy to offer scapegoats such as refugees and trans people. But the priority of the Truss and Kwartang wing is clearly to let the free market rip unrestricted and damn the consequences. For the Braverman and Patel wing, culture wars and particularly immigration are what they hold dearest.
Johnson certainly doesn’t fall into the first camp, and though he has always been happy to play the race card, he has also at times tried to sell himself as socially liberal, as London Mayor for instance. In other words Johnson is whatever he thinks he needs to be to win. Where the others are deeply ideological, he is truly opportunist.
It’s easy to understand why some of his closest acolytes are loyal. Rees Mogg and Nadine Dorris know in their heart of hearts no other person on this planet would have put them within a mile of a cabinet.
However, for the hard right he is an unreliable ally, hence his very quick falling out with Dominic Cummings, who felt he wasn’t going nearly far enough or fast enough, and was sacked for saying so. A delicious irony was that it was then Cummings who leaked much of the Partygate material. Doubly ironic given Johnson had defended Cummings for what at the time had been the most flagrant breaking of lock down rules by a public figure. Cummings had then told lies about the incident that were so ridiculous Johnson would have been proud of them.
It appears much of the right’s fixation with Johnson remains the view that he’s a vote winner, though his standing is incredibly low in the polls today. They seem to buy the notion he can hold the red wall, although the red wall went Tory in very specific conditions around ‘getting Brexit done’.
The cost of living crisis, the mortgage crisis, the crisis in the NHS, the strike waves and the shambolic soap opera that is today’s Tory Party make it most unlikely that large chunks of the red wall will remain blue. Moaning about Brexit not being done properly is not gaining meaningful resonance.
The likely outcome is that Johnson will fade from their expectations as they try to emerge from the turmoil of general election defeat with a coherent leadership and set of policies. This task may be well beyond them.
If Johnson can envisage a way back, that may well be it: a disunited party, failing to take advantage of the hopelessly timid Starmer regime, look back to Johnson whilst he portrays himself as a champion of the populist right sweeping his past under the carpet.
It would seem a long shot, not because the Tories won’t be disunited, and not because Starmer won’t be useless, in both cases they will, but because he is such damaged goods they will see the gamble as too great.
Let’s hope so, he belongs to the dustbin of history. As of course does the party who nurtured him.