Let me give our Great Misleader the benefit of the doubt for once. Boris Johnson says he was not responsible for the Mail on Sunday story accusing Angela Rayner of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract him in the House of Commons. But it is striking that some people thought the Prime Minister may have planted the story, for that is what he does when he is cornered: he lashes out, creates distractions and stokes divisions.
Remember when his efforts to ram Brexit legislation through parliament were being thwarted in late 2019, and he looked likely to become one of the shortest serving prime ministers in British history? He accused his opponents of “betrayal”, “surrender” and “treachery”, of being “girly swots” and a “great big girl’s blouse”. When opposition MPs complained that his incendiary language was triggering death threats against them, he dismissed the charge as “humbug”.
You can see something similar happening again. The more Johnson is cornered by partygate, the more destructive and ugly his tactics are becoming.
His language is becoming more extreme as he seeks to exacerbate social, cultural and political divisions in a naked attempt to whip up his base.
Last week, absurdly, he labelled Keir Starmer a “Corbynista in a smart Islington suit” – the Labour leader’s robust support for the government’s Ukraine policies notwithstanding. He lashed out at Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the BBC – reportedly accusing them of being more critical of the government’s new asylum plan than they were of Vladimir Putin.
He took aim at another of his favourite targets – “politically motivated lawyers” – while his loyal sidekick, Priti Patel, preposterously accused the BBC of “xenophobia” in its coverage of the government’s new asylum policy.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, seemingly unable to identify any advantages of Brexit, used the Mail on Sunday to attack another soft target – the civil service and its alleged work-from-home culture. “After a tip-off from a fellow minister, I visited an office in Whitehall whose officials report to my department,” he wrote. “In a room which could fit several dozen people, not a soul could be found. Instead the scene was Westminster’s answer to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who hid from danger and remained asleep for 200 years. Yellowed bulletins dated March 2020 were curling on noticeboards and it seemed like the only people who had been in the room since then were the ever-diligent cleaners.”
Increasingly, too, government policy is being dictated not for the nation’s best interests, but by Johnson’s battle for survival. Abandon hope of any serious, coordinated, well-thought-out strategy for tackling the looming cost-of-living catastrophe, for example, or the deepening energy crisis. Instead, the Prime Minister and his toadies are chucking hunks of red meat to the mob in a desperate attempt to grab the next day’s headlines, distract attention from “partygate”, and shore up his crumbling base. This is Operation Save Big Dog Mark Two.
We’ve already had Patel’s disgraceful policy of shipping asylum seekers 4,000 miles to Rwanda, one of the nastiest regimes in Africa, and Nadine Dorries’s totally unnecessary plan to privatise Channel 4.
The front page of yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph ran stories proclaiming “Rees-Mogg tells ministers to prepare for a bonfire of the quangos” and “Pledge to ban trials for Army veterans over Troubles deaths”. Beneath a banner front-page headline declaring “Boris: I am the leader Britain needs” in Downing Street’s in-house newspaper, the Sunday Express, ran a supposedly “exclusive” story informing readers that “the Prime Minister highlighted ten landmark measures due to become law this week as proof that he is delivering for Britain”. They include “keeping serious offenders behind bars for longer, strengthening the NHS and smashing people-smuggling gangs”.
And so it goes on. Downing Street sources are letting it be known that the Queen’s speech on 10 May will include legislation to enable the government unilaterally to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol.
That may excite diehard Brexiteers, but is it really in the UK’s interest to pick another fight with the EU and US when maintaining Western unity against Russia is so imperative? Or to breach an international treaty when we are ostensibly championing democracy and the rule of law in the face of Russian aggression? Or to risk a trade war with our largest trading partners when prices are already surging?
Anything Johnson does, legitimate or not, is now tainted by a suspicion about his motives. Was his trip to India last week another way of distracting attention from “partygate”? He scarcely tried to persuade the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to abandon Putin, and achieved little else beyond shamefully promoting JCB, the company owned by the Leave-supporting Tory donor Anthony Bamford.
The same suspicions apply to Johnson’s recent trip to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, and his eye-catching promise to send tanks to Poland to replace those Warsaw is supplying to Ukraine. There is a real danger of the Prime Minister adopting increasingly hawkish positions on Ukraine simply to improve his standing at home.
That said, I doubt any of these ruses will save Johnson, though it remains to be seen whether it is next week’s local elections, further fines, Sue Gray’s “excoriating” final report or the Committee of Privileges investigation that finishes him off. Indeed, does anyone seriously believe he would still be in office had there been a plausible successor?
Polls show a whopping 78 per cent of the country think Johnson has lied about “partygate”, and that a clear majority believe he should resign. He is haemorrhaging support even – or especially – in those “Red Wall” constituencies that supposedly he alone can win for the Tories.
Within the parliamentary party, his support is almost visibly ebbing away as “partygate” dominates the papers day after day, week after week. Most Tory MPs are embarrassed, despondent and sullen. Fewer are openly calling for him to go now than before the Ukraine war erupted in February, but many defied their whips’ best efforts to get them to block the Privileges Committee investigation last week.
Beyond a tiny gang of usual suspects – Dorries, Rees-Mogg, Conor Burns and the absurd Michael Fabricant – it is remarkable how few are still willing publicly to defend him. That is probably because they can’t: when Fay Jones, the Conservative MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, tried to do so on Newsnight last week she ended up looking ridiculous.
It is remarkable, too, how any mention of Johnson is being omitted from the party’s local election leaflets. He was once hailed as the great vote-winner who could reach parts of the country that no other Conservative could.
No, Johnson can employ all the populist gimmicks, the “dead cat” distractions and rabble-rousing rhetoric he wants, but I don’t believe they will work any longer. Voters have finally rumbled him. They see those tricks for what they are. They will no longer be taken for fools.
There was a time when all those staged photos of Johnson trying to spin cotton and sporting turbans in India last week might have struck voters as funny, engaging and endearingly self-deprecating. In today’s circumstances they seemed utterly ridiculous – a pathetic attempt to curry favour by a doomed Prime Minister.