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20 December 2021

Martin Fletcher

Boris Johnson is finally out of luck

Even diehard Conservatives now see the Prime Minister for what he is: a liar, conman and charlatan.

I’m not a particularly political animal. I don’t work at Westminster. I don’t know many ministers and MPs. What I did have was early exposure to Boris Johnson. 

As a Brussels correspondent for the Times in the late 1990s I saw firsthand how, as the Telegraph’s man in Brussels, he had created and entrenched in the national psyche a grotesquely distorted caricature of the European Union and of the UK’s standing in that bloc. I have seen subsequently how he has shamelessly perpetuated that caricature all the way to Downing Street, causing immense damage to his country in the process.

Suddenly, I sense that the rest of Britain – even the most diehard Conservatives – now plainly see the Prime Minister for what he is: a liar, conman and charlatan. It reminds me of the way the thousands of dots of a Magic Eye picture suddenly resolve themselves into a striking 3D image. That moment of epiphany had been approaching for a while, as scandal followed scandal and bungle followed bungle, but the ultimate catalyst was the revelation of the secret Downing Street Christmas parties.

It was bad enough to learn that Johnson and his aides were carousing behind No 10’s famous black door while ordering ordinary mortals to stay home alone, even when parents or partners were literally on their deathbeds. It was even worse that Downing Street sought to deny they were parties despite photographs and a video clip showing them to be precisely that. Incredibly, it is still engaging in ridiculous sophistry – claiming that the Guardian’s picture of Johnson, his wife and 17 aides drinking wine on No 10’s sun-dappled lawn, many in shirtsleeves and with not a notebook or laptop in sight, was a work meeting.

The public are not fools. They know when they are being told out-and-out porkies, when they are being taken for idiots and treated with contempt by an arrogant elite. Thus, the self-styled man of the people has finally been rumbled. Thus, the proverbial scales have fallen from the nation’s eyes. Thus, the Tories were slaughtered in last week’s North Shropshire by-election, and it is hard to see how the fabled comeback king, the man David Cameron memorably described as a “greased piglet”, can now recover. 

I may be guilty of wishful thinking, but it seems to me that that catastrophic result in what was previously one of the Tories’ safest seats has transformed the political dynamics utterly. In a matter of days the Prime Minister has metastasised from electoral asset to electoral liability. It was only because Johnson could win elections that desperate Conservative MPs elected him their leader in 2019, selling their souls in the process. Now that he cannot, now that he is so widely reviled and has a net approval rating of -42, they will abandon him. 

It is happening already. How extraordinary that a WhatsApp group of more than 100 Tory MPs should expel Nadine Dorries for defending the Prime Minister. How remarkable that the former de facto Brexit minister David Frost, a man who was created by Johnson and owed him everything, should so publicly repudiate his policies. How astonishing that compromising pictures from inside Downing Street are being routinely leaked to the press. 

The parliamentary party is fracturing before our eyes. Libertarians are mutinying over Johnson’s latest Covid restrictions – he must now choose between them and his scientific advisers, with a Cabinet Office source telling the Sunday Times that Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, is “furious because the PM hasn’t been serious enough about [Omicron]”. 

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Free-market Brexit zealots are incensed that Johnson has abandoned their vision of a British “Singapore-on-Thames” in favour of a European-style high-tax, high-spend economic model. Conversely, the Tories’ new “Red Wall” MPs are growing increasingly restive over his failure to deliver on his costly, statist promise to “level up”. The more centrist Tory MPs – the few that have not been purged – have loathed him from the outset. 

Johnson is now in a position where his backbenchers will no longer go out on a limb to defend or support him – hence last week’s Commons rebellion over his Covid Plan B. Nor will most ministers or members of his cabinet. From now on, we should expect the likes of Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove (plus Jeremy Hunt and Tom Tugendhat from the back benches) to be not-so-subtly distancing themselves from the Prime Minister in order to burnish their chances of succeeding him. Truss, Sunak and Hunt already appear to be “on manoeuvres”, while Gove, so visible when things are going well, has all but vanished from sight.

With the exception of the risibly sycophantic Daily Express, the Tory press is finally rounding on Johnson, too. The Telegraph’s columnists (save for Charles Moore, whom Johnson ennobled) splutter with rage at his perceived betrayals of right-wing principles – as do contributors to that paper’s letters page. Following the North Shropshire by-election, a Matt cartoon in the Telegraph showed a Downing Street spokesman declaring: “Nothing happened on Thursday. There was not a by-election. It was just a gathering of Lib Dems with pencils and voting slips.”

In short, despite a majority of nearly 80, Johnson has lost control. His cover is blown. And having invented the myth about the wicked EU ganging up on poor, defenceless Britain, he knows just how hard it is to change narratives once they take root. Henceforth, I suspect that all his usual tricks for diverting attention from his incompetence and dishonesty – headline-grabbing announcements, boosterism, demonising opponents, blaming others, ordering potentially whitewashing “investigations” – will be seen for what they are: desperate and expedient.

Nor will the news get any better. In the short term, the redoubtable Sue Gray – having replaced the deeply compromised Simon Case as head of the “partygate” investigation – may well conclude that Johnson lied. Likewise, Christopher Geidt might conceivably develop the cojones he needs to state the blindingly obvious: that Johnson fibbed when he told his ethics adviser that he did not know who paid for his Downing Street flat refurbishment. In the longer term, Omicron could well overwhelm the NHS while looming tax increases, soaring inflation and rising interest rates threaten real economic hardship. 

Labour and the Lib Dems are reinvigorated, but there is no room for complacency. Without Scotland, Labour still faces an almost impossible task to win an outright majority at the next election, while the Lib Dems have just 13 MPs. North Shropshire may have rendered Johnson a lame duck leader, but it also showed that the two parties must unite behind single progressive candidates in key constituencies to save Britain from yet another Tory government.

[See also: Keir Starmer must face reality: only a progressive alliance can defeat the Tories]

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