Doctored quotations, tall stories, exaggerations, and mistruths abound in the British prime minister’s tenure. When confronted, he has usually responded with an apologetic shrug or a guilty grin before moving on. There were a lot of individuals who were prepared to forgive him.
Until now, that is. The prime minister and his staff partied while the UK was under coronavirus restrictions, causing public indignation and prompting many Conservative Party members to consider replacing their leader.
Johnson was chosen by the Conservatives because of his reputation as a happy rule-breaker — the naughty schoolboy of British politics — which allowed him to connect with people in a unique way. Many people are now having second thoughts.
“His supporters see him as a force of nature who doesn’t let anything stand in his way,” said Steven Fielding, a political history professor at the University of Nottingham.
“He’s been found out on occasion, but he’s mainly gotten away with it,” Fielding continued. “As time goes on, more and more people are waking up to the fact.”
Johnson has a knack for talking his way out of trouble. The Oxford-educated politician has created the image of a rumpled jokester with a mop of blond hair who doesn’t take himself too seriously through his choice of words. He cracks jokes and quips, sometimes in Latin or ancient Greek.
Johnson’s demeanor made him a famous guest on the funny TV show “Have I Got News for You” from the late 1990s onwards, and he gained international renown as London’s boosterish mayor from 2008 to 2016.
Many people believed he was too inexperienced to ever become Prime Minister, and Johnson didn’t disagree. He masked his desire with jokes, claiming that becoming Prime Minister had about as much chance of happening as “finding Elvis on Mars” or being “reincarnated as an olive.”
Indeed, he had long aspired to be powerful. His earliest aim, according to his sister Rachel Johnson, was to be “global monarch.” His path to the top, though, was erratic.
He manufactured a remark about King Edward II from a historian who also happened to be his godfather while he was a young writer at The Times of London. He was sacked, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent in the early 1990s, when he reported on inflated allegations of EU waste and red tape.
Those “Euromyths” like one-size-fits-all condoms and threats to outlaw “bendy bananas” helped shift British sentiment against the EU, and Johnson became the Brexit campaigner who would pull the United Kingdom out of the EU years later.
Brexit was achieved in a 2016 referendum campaign that included a number of dubious statements, including the claim — repeatedly repeated by Johnson — that Britain contributed the EU 350 million pounds per week that might have been spent on the NHS.
Johnson’s political career was derailed early on when he was sacked by then-Conservative leader Michael Howard in 2004 for lying about an extramarital affair. Howard had compelled him to apologize to Liverpool residents a month before for accusing them of “wallowing” in victimhood.
Johnson’s opponents have long said that his shaky grasp of facts, as well as a history of glibly insulting statements, rendered him unqualified for high office. Over the years, Johnson has compared Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to “letter boxes,” asserted that “half Kenyan” Barack Obama had an ancient disdain of Britain, and compared Papua New Guineans to cannibals.
Johnson’s typical response has been to dismiss hurtful statements as jokes or to accuse media of rehashing old remarks. Johnson’s long-standing populist technique of attacking the media, as well as “lefty London attorneys,” is nothing new. Andrew Gimson, his biographer, has dubbed him the “Merry England PM,” who portrays his opponents as glum puritans.
Johnson’s supporters, on the other hand, are concerned that the tide has shifted. In unusually quiet and carefully worded speeches, Johnson apologized for the lockdown-breaching parties. He has refrained from acknowledging personal misconduct, claiming that he followed the regulations.
Many Britons who adhered to the government’s lockdown regulations — being cut off from friends and family and unable to see relatives in nursing homes and hospitals — have mocked Johnson’s “partygate” explanations, such as his assertion that a “bring your own liquor” garden party was a business function.
Public trust in the prime minister has fallen, according to Chris Curtis, head of political polling at Opinium Research, and Johnson’s personal approval ratings are now “quite terrible.”
“The public has always preferred to have a pint with Boris Johnson, but they wouldn’t necessarily trust him to care after their children,” Curtis added. “However, as a result of this issue, many now believe they would be less willing to have a pint with him — and they would not trust him to care after their children.”
Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, is due to wrap up her probe into the partying claims next week. Conservative legislators may be hesitant to vote for a no-confidence motion against Johnson if she does not determine that he willfully disregarded the rules.
Even if the present situation passes, Fielding believes Johnson’s reputation has been irreversibly harmed.
“It will retreat,” Fielding said, “but I don’t believe it will recede to the point where he is a credible Conservative Party leader heading into the next election.” “He’s a dead duck,” says the narrator.