Has rule breaker Boris Johnson met his match in ‘partygate’?
LONDON (AP) — For Boris Johnson, facts have always been flexible.
The career of the British Prime Minister is littered with doctored quotes, grandiose stories, exaggerations and untruths. When called, he usually offered an apologetic shrug or a guilty smile, and moved on. Many people were ready to forgive him.
At least until now. Revelations that the Prime Minister and his staff partied while Britain was under coronavirus restrictions sparked public outrage and prompted many Conservative Party members to consider dumping their chief.
The Tories chose Johnson because his image as a jolly rule-breaker – the naughty schoolboy of British politics – gave him a rare ability to connect with voters. Now many have doubts.
“His fans would say he’s a force of nature – he doesn’t let things get in his way,” said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham.
“Sometimes he was caught off guard, but most of the time he gets away with it,” Fielding added. “Now the reality is becoming more and more apparent to more and more people.”
Johnson has often managed to pull himself out of crises. The Oxford-educated politician used words to create the image of a crumpled prankster with a mop of blonde hair who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Qulibets and jokes burst out at him, sometimes in Latin or ancient Greek.
This character made Johnson a popular guest on the comedy TV show “Have I Got News for You” from the late 1990s, and brought him worldwide fame as London’s propelling mayor between 2008 and 2016. .
Many people thought he was too light to become prime minister, and Johnson didn’t contradict them. He disguised his ambition with jokes, saying he had as much chance of becoming prime minister as of ‘finding Elvis on Mars’ or being ‘reincarnated as an olive’.
In fact, he had long dreamed of power. His sister Rachel Johnson said her childhood ambition was to be “king of the world”. But his route to the top was haphazard.
As a young reporter for the Times of London, he coined a quote about King Edward II from a historian, who also happened to be his godfather. He was fired, but that didn’t stop him becoming a Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in the early 1990s, publishing exaggerated stories about EU waste and bureaucracy. These “euromyths” about one-size-fits-all condoms and plans to ban “flexible bananas” helped turn British opinion against the bloc, and eventually led to Johnson becoming the Brexit champion who years later , will take the UK out of the EU.
Brexit was won in a 2016 referendum campaign that contained many dubious claims, including the allegation – often repeated by Johnson – that Britain gave the EU £350million a week that could rather be spent on British health services.
Johnson suffered an early political setback when then-Conservative leader Michael Howard fired him in 2004 for lying about an extramarital affair. A month earlier Howard had forced him to apologize to the City of Liverpool for accusing its people of ‘wallowing’ in victimhood.
Opponents have long argued that Johnson’s loose understanding of the facts – and history of offhandedly offensive comments – made him unfit for high office. Over the years, Johnson has called Papua New Guineans cannibals, claimed that “part Kenyan” Barack Obama had an age-old dislike of Britain, and compared Muslim women who wear face veils to “mailboxes”.
Johnson generally responded by dismissing offensive comments as jokes or accusing reporters of dredging up remarks from a long time ago. Attacking the media – as well as “leftist London lawyers” – is a long-standing populist tactic of Johnson. His biographer Andrew Gimson called him the “Merry England PM” who portrayed his opponents as mirthless Puritans.
Now, however, Johnson’s allies fear the tide has turned. Johnson apologized for parties who broke the lockdown in unusually moderate and carefully worded statements. He refrained from admitting personal wrongdoing, saying he believed he acted within the rules.
But many Britons who have stuck to government-imposed lockdown rules – cut off from friends and family, unable to visit relatives in nursing homes and hospitals – scoffed at the apologies from Johnson’s “attendance,” including his claim that he thought a “bring your own booze garden party was a work event.”
Chris Curtis, head of political polls at Opinium Research, said public confidence in the prime minister had plummeted and Johnson’s personal approval ratings were now “pretty dire”.
“It has always been true that the public would prefer to have a pint with Boris Johnson but would not necessarily trust him to look after their children,” Curtis said. “But what we’ve seen happen with this crisis is that now people are saying they’d be less likely to have a pint with him – and people really wouldn’t trust him to look after their children. .”
Next week, senior civil servant Sue Gray is expected to conclude an investigation into the party allegations. If she doesn’t find that Johnson knowingly broke the rules, Tory lawmakers could abstain from a no-confidence vote to overthrow him.
But Fielding said Johnson’s mark is now irrevocably tarnished, even if the immediate crisis passes.
“He’s going to back down, but I don’t think he’s going to back down to the level that makes him a viable leader for the Conservative Party before the next election,” Fielding said. “It’s a dead duck.”