In time, books will be written about Boris Johnson’s past few weeks. Each of them will be several thousand pages long and read like a speculative airport sci-fi paperback about Mr. Bean blowing up the world.
However, such is the high-frequency train wreck of his existence that not even the longest of these books will manage to contain every single blunder, gaffe, lie, cover-up, obfuscation, bodge, boob, bungle, and fluff that the prime minister has committed of late. At best, a meager article like this can only offer a whistle-stop tour of Johnson’s most recent greatest hits. Nevertheless, to recap …
Johnson, the faux-buffoonish former journalist with a habit of appearing on light entertainment shows, became prime minister in 2019 after successfully selling the British public on the virtues of Brexit. He achieved this victory with help from Dominic Cummings, a political strategist with a history of knifing anybody who dared to cross him.
Despite positioning himself as a good-time leader who’d swing the country into hitherto undiscovered worlds of optimism, Johnson quickly found himself saddled with a pandemic. He put the country into lockdown, then four days later tested positive for the coronavirus before subsequently moving into an intensive-care unit, where preparations were made for the event of his death. He left hospital later that month, and then three weeks later became a father for the sixth or seventh time. The mother of the child, Carrie Symonds, would later become his third wife.
At the end of 2020, Johnson fired Cummings. And now, give or take a handful of scandals about his personal finances—including one particularly egregious episode where Johnson asked a party donor to help fund a redecoration of his Downing Street apartment with $1,000-a-roll gold wallpaper—that would have finished off most other prime ministers, you’re up to speed.
The background is important because, incredibly, things have only grown worse. Johnson currently finds himself on the precipice, his entire world falling to pieces around him. If he is forced out of the job—a prospect that is looking increasingly likely—it will be due to one thing: parties.
As with the rest of the world, the first British lockdown of 2020 was a time characterized by sacrifice and fear. Weddings were canceled; funerals went unattended; supermarkets taped off aisles containing anything non-essential, such as toys or clothes. This was accepted for two reasons: because everybody in the country was enduring the same conditions, and because breaching the rules came with a hefty fine. However, in December it emerged that Downing Street staff had bent the rules enough to have a Christmas party. Johnson’s press secretary was filmed making a joke about it, and shortly afterward resigned in shame. It was bad, but worse was to come.
Johnson asked a party donor to help fund a redecoration of his Downing Street apartment with $1,000-a-roll gold wallpaper.
More reports started to bubble through about other lockdown parties held at Downing Street, thought to be leaked by none other than spurned ex-adviser Cummings, on a trail of revenge that would shame Charles Bronson. Many of these reports contained all manner of unseemly details. Someone was dispatched to a shop with an empty suitcase and ordered to fill it with alcohol. A child’s swing was damaged in the drunken revelry.
Two parties took place the night before Prince Philip’s funeral, the defining image of which was the sight of the 95-year-old Queen obeying guidelines by mourning her husband in solitude. This last one necessitated a formal apology from Johnson. Incredibly bad, but worse was still to come.
A senior civil servant, Sue Gray, was tasked with conducting a formal investigation. And immediately the floodgates opened. The review exposed 16 lockdown parties, and noted that the Metropolitan Police was actively investigating 12 of them. The Met investigation, incidentally, means that Johnson could become the first British prime minister ever to be formally interviewed by the police. Unimaginably bad, but as bad as it got? Nope.
Because what really kneecapped Johnson was his choice of response. On the day that Gray’s investigation was published, Johnson offered a contrite speech in Parliament. But when opposition leader Keir Starmer called for him to resign, Johnson responded in kind, angrily repeating a disproved right-wing conspiracy theory about Starmer’s role in helping Jimmy Savile—a once-beloved entertainer who was also one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders—escape justice.
Johnson’s quip was roundly condemned and resulted in a flurry of resignations from his staff, among them policy chief Munira Mirza (a figure Johnson had previously named as one of the five most influential women in his life), his chief of staff, and his principal private secretary. Perhaps more pressingly, Christian Wakefield—one of his own M.P.’s—defected to the Labour Party in disgust. To make matters worse, Johnson was so busy firefighting all these multiple self-inflicted crises that he was forced to postpone a telephone call with Vladimir Putin, a call that had been scheduled explicitly to de-escalate the threat of global war.
The review exposed 16 lockdown parties.
Add to this a dramatic cost-of-living increase in the U.K. (the need for which Johnson had specifically promised Brexit would prevent) and a new book about Carrie—variously claiming that Johnson saw her as a fling but it got out of hand, that she demanded a $730 gold-colored iPad from a government department, and that she has a tendency to aggressively assert herself into policymaking decisions—and it all seems like an inescapable mess. And one Carrie isn’t taking lightly, firing off a statement of her own, that “she is a private individual who plays no role in government.”
Getting rid of a sitting prime minister is a complicated and arcane process. The simplest route would be for him to resign, but that isn’t going to happen. Instead, it falls to members of Johnson’s own party to oust him. Under party rules, 15 percent of Conservative M.P.’s need to write letters to the head of a backbench committee requesting a vote of no confidence. If that number is reached, the vote will take place. If not, Johnson lives to stagger through another day.
As it stands, Johnson’s M.P.’s are already handing in a steady stream of no-confidence letters, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is widely thought to be angling for a leadership bid. Johnson’s Downing Street has an increasing air of Hitler’s bunker about it. Things have got so bad that Johnson’s latest big idea was to hire Guto Harri as his chief of communications.
Harri served under Johnson once already, during his stint as mayor of London, and can reasonably be described as a disgruntled ex-employee. Since leaving the London post, he has called Johnson’s pandemic communication strategy “a masterclass in incompetence”; the Downing Street parties “unforgivable”; and Johnson himself as “sexually incontinent.” Now that he’s back working with the man, Harri has used his first interview to reassure the public that Johnson is “not a complete clown,” a cock-up large enough to reportedly warrant an angry dressing-down from Johnson on his first day at work. Onlookers are already referring to him as “Johnson’s Scaramucci.”
Deep in his heart, Johnson still wants to be the good-time P.M. he promised. And this might explain his latest Get Out of Jail Free tactic: declaring the pandemic over. In a matter of weeks, Johnson plans to drop all existing coronavirus restrictions—including the one that makes you stay home if you have it—in a bid to show the world we’ve got it licked.
Admittedly, you might question the rationale behind letting the virus loose when it’s still killing 1,500 British people a week, especially as a deflection from personal scandal, but Johnson has never been one to let facts stand in the way of celebration. Indeed, he is apparently telling colleagues that he “got Covid done.” Just like he got Brexit done. And that worked out O.K., didn’t it?
Now, a reasonable person might look at the sheer scale of disaster—the parties, the slander, the police investigation, the ruinous international diplomacy, the apologies to the Queen—and assume that Johnson has bottomed out. But if we have learned anything at all over these last few weeks, it’s that Johnson is better than almost anyone alive at taking a bad situation and making it worse. As bad as things will get? Don’t count on it.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals