Friday, May 27

From conference highs to abyss: Boris Johnson’s quick undoing | boris johnson

It wasn’t meant to fall apart as quickly as this. After Boris Johnson won the general election in December 2019, declared in a victory speech:: “I, and we, will never take your support for granted”.

The prime minister’s 80-seat majority, a victory for the Let’s Get It Through Brexit campaign, appeared to leave him unassailable. For the next 18 months, Johnson continued to defy political gravity despite repeated mistakes, as the pandemic reached British shores.

“Johnson contemplates a decade in power” splashed the Times in May after the Conservatives defeated Labor in the Hartlepool election, a seat held by Labor for 47 years, by 16 points. “Pulsation, pulsing, pulsing to jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Johnson, optimistic that a talent for sound bites could equate to a rendition program for the government.

Conservative Party ratings compared to other political parties

Less than four months ago, the Conservatives were once again triumphant at their party’s conference in Manchester. Johnson delivered a joke-filled speech on light politics on October 6: it was “politics as light entertainment”, said Guardian sketch writer John Crace. The government’s wildlife plans were described as “rebuilding the beaver”; renew UK beef imports to the US as “rebuild burger”.

Front page of the Daily Mail, 4 November 2022, showing Owen Paterson with the headline

The timing of that shift is clear: November’s misguided attempt to overturn the punishment for Owen Paterson, after the Tory MP was found to have breached parliament’s long-standing ban on paid lobbying. His case was taken up by a group of his Brexiter allies. Johnson endorsed it, won the vote in parliament, and immediately lost the discussion in the country.

“Shameless parliamentarians sink back into squalor”, splashed the Daily Mail. “That’s not what we do in this country, that’s what they do in Russia.” said Labor MP Chris Bryant.

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Labor refused to work with the Conservative proposals and the Paterson plan had to be shamefully withdrawn. Johnson blamed his colleagues afterwards: he had been led to believe there would be cross-party support for the plan. “Colleagues put it on me,” he later timidly told parliamentarians.

At first, the return of sleaze allowed journalists to write extensively about Conservative MPs’ second jobs, including the nearly £6m won by lawyer and MP Geoffrey Cox. Work began to move forward as Johnson’s teasing touch left him in a rambling speech about Peppa Pig World, “my kind of place,” at the CBI conference.

Boris Johnson enjoys a ride in Peppa Pig World.
Photograph: George Edgar/Reuters

He came home in December. TO Daily Mirror story on Johnson and Downing Street staff attending Christmas parties a year earlier, when London was under Covid restrictions, it led to a trickle of revelations. But this time it was not about the conduct of other Conservative MPs but about Johnson himself and the number 10 he led.

“All instructions were followed,” Johnson said. Downing Street even tried to deny that parties were taking place. That was completely undermined by the emergence of a video showing former press secretary Allegra Stratton joking about “a Christmas party in Downing Street on Friday night”. A tearful Stratton resigned the next day.

Allegra Stratton speaking outside her north London home, where she announced she had resigned.
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Voters with their own very different memories of the lockdown were no longer impressed. Paterson was forced to resign and his North Shropshire seat, normally one of the safest for Conservatives, fell to the Liberal Democrats by a 34-point swing. “Boris Johnson, the party is over,” declared winning candidate Helen Morgan, except it wasn’t.

Boris Johnson and staff photographed with wine in Downing Street Garden in May 2020.
Photograph: The Guardian

Days later, The Guardian published an image of the prime minister having wine and cheese with his wife and staff in Downing Street garden on May 15, 2020, the end of the first lockdown. It was a working meeting, the No. 10 said, but the public drew its own conclusions. Johnson limped through Christmas while Sue Gray, the investigating officer, had an ever-growing list of parties to watch.

There was little respite in January as attention turned to the prime minister. Lord Geidt, his ethics adviser, concluded that Johnson had been reckless in not disclosing a WhatsApp exchange the prime minister had with Conservative donor Lord Brownlow, who provided £58,000 of the cost of refurbishing the Downing Street flat.

Johnson had previously said he didn’t know where the money was coming from and says he thought Brownlow was organizing, not providing funds. The message showed him asking the donor for the cash because the flat was “a bit of a tip.” Giving a “humble and sincere” apology, Johnson said he “didn’t remember” the pleading message because it was contained in an old phone.

Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds leave 10 Downing Street in February 2021 to take part in a national applause for Captain Sir Tom Moore, after his death, and NHS staff.
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Then came the email. “Join us from 6pm and bring your own drink!” wrote Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, when he invited staff to an event on May 20, 2020 in a letter obtained by ITV News. Within minutes, reporters reported that Johnson himself was there. After a day in hiding, Johnson apologized, though he still argued that he “implicitly believed this was a work event.”

While people across the country had been fined for breaking the lockdown, discipline in Downing Street seemed non-existent. Two drinking parties were held on April 16, 2021, the night before Prince Philip’s funeral, where the mourning queen had been alone. Johnson was not present this time, but the staff had he ran away to the Co-op on the Strand armed with a suitcase to fill with bottles of wine, It was said.

Even Johnson gave the impression he couldn’t take much longer, admitting he had to apologize to the monarch and looking down with bloodshot eyes in an excruciating 16-minute Sky News interview. “No one told me that what we were doing was, as you say, against the rules,” Johnson said, though he was the one who had set them for the country.

Boris Johnson denies Cummings' claims that he was warned about the Downing St party – video
Boris Johnson denies Cummings’ claims that he was warned about the Downing St party – video

The problems have increased at a time when the cost of living is rising by 5.4% and energy bills are skyrocketing. The current count of parties breaching the Downing Street lockdown is 15, but there is still a belief in Westminster that more will emerge. Gray’s investigation has yet to be reported and parts of the Conservative Party are in open rebellion, with dozens of letters of censure sent by disgruntled MPs.

But above all there is the damage to Johnson’s reputation from misjudged maneuvers, evasive responses and revised statements. “The public connected with Johnson on an emotional level like no other politician before,” said Martin Boon, founder of the Deltapoll polling firm. “He just put a machete on it.”

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