Most leaders, at one point or another, suffer from a bad run of luck, a cluster of days when fate shrugs its shoulders and dumps the weight of the world directly on their heads. Historically, Boris Johnson has tended to avoid this sort of thing, less because of his careful decision-making and more due to the bulletproof anti-reality force field he has miraculously built around himself.
Questions may have been asked about his processes, his professional ethics, his composure in a crisis, and his fairly antic sex life. But by refusing to acknowledge any of them in any meaningful way at any point, Johnson has somehow managed to deflect dozens of potential scandals that would almost definitely have buried anybody else.
But a force field can hold out for only so long. Johnson currently finds himself buried by a tsunami of catastrophes, which might have seemed unjust had he not created them under his own steam. Short of being an armorer on an Alec Baldwin set, it’s hard to see how his situation could get any worse.
We’ll begin with the biggest crisis. Last month, the parliamentary commissioner for standards ruled that an M.P. named Owen Paterson had breached paid-advocacy rules by lobbying government departments on behalf of both a health-care company and a food manufacturer that collectively pay almost $150,000 a year. As a result of this breach, the commissioner recommended that Paterson be suspended for 30 days.
Enter Johnson. Two weeks ago, he was hosting the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow. This in itself had not been without its share of upsets. Pictures from the summit not only showed Johnson appearing to doze off during an address—which is never a fantastic look for someone attempting to convince the world of imminent danger—but also news anchor Christiane Amanpour went viral for scolding him as if he were a naughty schoolboy after seeing footage of him sitting maskless next to 95-year-old nature-and-environment god David Attenborough.
Johnson has somehow managed to deflect dozens of potential scandals that would almost definitely have buried anybody else.
This alone, by the way, should have been enough. The British universally venerate Attenborough more than any other living person; had he plopped off his perch after meeting Johnson, it isn’t an over-reaction to assume that there would have been riots in the street.
But then Johnson left COP26 to attend a dinner at the Garrick Club, in London. Strike one: he traveled by private jet, the COP26 equivalent of blowing cigar smoke at a homeless person. Strike two: at the dinner, it is rumored, Charles Moore, Johnson’s old boss at The Daily Telegraph and a notorious climate-change skeptic, urged him to do something about Paterson’s suspension. So, the next day, Johnson ordered his M.P.’s to vote on a motion that would delay Paterson’s punishment while simultaneously setting up a new committee that appeared to exist for no reason other than to absolve Paterson of any sins whatsoever.
The motion passed and Paterson was spared, right up until the moment that anybody heard about it, at which point the scale of public fury forced Johnson into a humiliating climbdown the very next day. It is, by all accounts, a terrible look for everyone involved. One M.P. who had to vote on the motion had his constituency offices vandalized by graffiti reading, TORY SLEAZE. Paterson was forced to resign his post—citing “the cruel world of politics”—in order to spend more time with all his sausage money.
Now Johnson, who, having opened the floodgates on himself in such a spectacularly dim-witted way, has to watch as every dodgy decision he has ever made comes under closer scrutiny. Last month, for example, he went on vacation to a villa in Marbella. Under regular circumstances, the villa can be rented out at a price of as much as $33,000 a week. But Johnson stayed there for free because it is owned by the family of Zac Goldsmith, a man whom Johnson just happened to appoint to the House of Lords two years ago.
It has also caused Labour to reopen the grubby case of Johnson’s apartment refurbishment. In April, you will recall, Johnson and his wife, Carrie, made plans to transform the apartment above 11 Downing Street into a terrifying kind of Fisher-Price Trump Tower, complete with blindingly expensive $1,100-a-roll gold wallpaper. It’s been speculated that the cost of the refurbishment ran to $270,000, some of which is rumored to have been covered by a Tory donor.
Additionally, an investigation by The Sunday Times and Open Democracy revealed that anyone willing to donate $4 million to the Conservative Party, while temporarily becoming its treasurer, all but automatically received a life peerage in return. And there are still questions to be asked about the $135,000 government grant awarded to a company run by Jennifer Arcuri, the pole dancer/I.T. expert who claimed in the loudest possible way to have had an affair with Johnson while he was married to his most recent ex-wife.
Christiane Amanpour went viral for scolding him as if he were a naughty schoolboy.
Worse still, the issue has now widened to swallow up the entire British parliamentary system. Last year, for example, more than 200 of Britain’s 650 M.P.’s earned additional income outside of their annual $110,830 salary, and many make Paterson look like the shining white knight of ethical governance.
Take Laurence Robertson, M.P. for Tewkesbury, who warned Parliament about the dangers of tighter gambling restrictions, while being paid $32,000 annually by an organization called the Betting and Gaming Council.
Or Daniel Kawczynski, M.P. for Shrewsbury and Atcham, who earns $48,000 annually from a second job as a consultant for a New York–based mining corporation, while also being trade envoy to Mongolia, a country heaving with vast deposits of gold, coal, and copper.
Or former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who this year recommended to Parliament that alcohol-free hand sanitizer be declared suitable for use in the U.K., when he is paid a $33,000 salary by a firm that makes—you guessed it—alcohol-free hand sanitizer.
Then there is Sir Geoffrey Cox, who in September was caught on tape using his parliamentary office to moonlight as a lawyer, a job that brings in almost 10 times his basic M.P. wage. Some of the legal work, incidentally, involved helping to defend the British Virgin Islands against corruption charges that had been brought about by the British government. Please try not to think about this last one for too long, since just writing it down gave me a nosebleed.
The situation is so fraught that Parliament called an emergency debate on the issue of its members’ outside earnings. Johnson skipped out on it, preferring the relative safety of a photo opportunity in a hospital. And, Johnson being Johnson, most of those pictures saw him maskless. God knows why. Perhaps he heard that David Attenborough was there and wanted to finish him off for good.
The cumulative effect of these crises is that Johnson now has the lowest approval ratings of his premiership. The opposition can smell blood, his M.P.’s are now openly hostile toward him, and the voters who once venerated him as the savior of British sovereignty are abandoning him in droves. If the pace doesn’t let up in the next few days, it could all spell doom for Johnson. Or at least it would if another poll hadn’t just disclosed that British voters still somehow view him as the best current choice for prime minister. That force field is really a hell of a thing.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL