Why Boris Johnson’s former supporters have no right to complain over his failures

The right-wing press is merely recognising what was clear all along: Johnson is unfit to be prime minister.

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In April, when Boris Johnson was battling Covid-19, the columnist Toby Young wrote a remarkable paean to his sick friend. Headlined “Britain needs Boris, the extraordinary man I’ve known for 35 years”, it spoke of Young’s “mystical belief in Britain’s greatness and her ability to occasionally bring forth remarkable individuals... who can serve her at critical junctures. I’ve always thought of Boris as one of those people – not just suspected it, but known it in my bones.”

In last week’s Spectator, Young wrote: “It pains me to say it, but I too have given up on Boris.” He asked: “What on earth happened to the freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character I voted for? Oliver Hardy has left the stage, replaced by Oliver Cromwell.”

In the same edition, Fraser Nelson, who occupies the editor’s seat that Johnson once held, lamented recent months of “disorder, debacle, rebellion, U-turn and confusion”, and asked: “What’s happened to Boris? Where is the man we thought we voted for?” The cover showed Johnson being tossed about on a raging ocean in a tiny, oarless boat.

Conservative disillusionment with Johnson extends far beyond the Spectator. Tory MPs are dismayed by his performance. For weeks now the Daily Mail has been running front page stories decrying the government’s latest “mess” or “fiasco”. Last Friday the lead editorial in the Times, headlined “Adrift”, declared: “The prime minister urgently needs to strengthen his cabinet and Downing Street operation to address growing doubts about whether he is up to the job.” 

Even the Telegraph, long Johnson’s mouthpiece, is starting to express doubts. “The reality is that Johnson has six months left to save his legacy and his premiership, and force himself back into the pantheon of the greats,” Allister Heath declared in that organ last week. “He’s just not up to the job,” Judith Woods, another Telegraph pundit, proclaimed. “By any measure he is failing.”

Poor Boris. Soon the only cheerleaders he will have left will be the Daily Express and Charles Moore – sorry, make that Baron Moore of Etchingham.

It is a relief, of course, that the previously sycophantic right-wing press is finally beginning to realise that Johnson is unfit to be prime minister, but one has to ask: what took it so long? What is it seeing now that was not blindingly obvious years ago?

This was a man who rose to prominence as a newspaper columnist – someone paid to be colourful, controversial and outspoken, but with little consequence attached to his words; a man so unscrupulous that he betrayed almost everyone who put their trust in him – his wives, party leaders and employers; a man whose two years as foreign secretary (his one previous ministerial job) were memorable only for gaffes, gratuitously offensive jokes and describing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a journalist, thereby ensuring her continued imprisonment in Iran.

As London’s mayor he embraced globalism and social liberalism. His supporters claim that is the real Boris Johnson. Alas, those “principles” did not survive a 2016 Leave campaign heavily tinged with jingoism and xenophobia.

Tory MPs knew all that when they held their proverbial noses and backed Johnson for party leader in July last year. Privately they loathed the man, but after Theresa May’s wretched three-year premiership they saw his showmanship as their only chance of avoiding electoral defeat. Their gamble paid off. Aided by the weakest Labour leader in memory, and a deeply divided opposition, Johnson blustered his way to victory in last December’s general election. But at what a price.

Johnson has been a calamitous prime minister. His handling of Covid-19 has been characterised by a failure to prepare for the looming pandemic in January and February, failure to lock down fast enough, failure to provide protective equipment for health workers, failure to protect care homes, failure to deliver an efficient test and trace system, failure to devise a plausible alternative to A-levels, failure to use the summer lull to prepare for the imminent second wave.

He won December’s election by promising to “get Brexit done” with his “oven-ready deal”, but on top of Covid-19’s economic devastation Britain now faces the very real possibility of crashing out of the EU without so much as a minimal trade agreement. We have grown dangerously reliant on Donald Trump, even as he faces possible defeat by Joe Biden in November’s US presidential election. The breach with Scotland grows ever wider.

As poor as its actual record is, the tenor of Johnson’s premiership is just as bad. It disregards the law. It scorns parliament. It rewards cronies with cabinet jobs, peerages and untendered contracts. It ousts decent civil servants while rotten ministers survive. It scapegoats officials, quangos and scientific advisers. Instead of seeking to reunite a riven country, it inflames, divides and purges.

As for Johnson himself, the “great communicator” offers no uplifting vision to rally the country, no coherent strategy for defeating Covid-19, no evidence that he can act independently of Dominic Cummings. He flops at Prime Minister’s Questions. His humour has given way to nastiness. He goes awol at key moments, performs endless U-turns, and seeks to obscure with bombast his failure to master the job. Sending “coronavirus packing within 12 weeks”, achieving “normality by Christmas”, producing a “world-beating” test and trace system, putting a “tiger in the tank” of the Brexit negotiations – it is all nonsense, as is his claim that Britain will “prosper mightily” from a no-deal Brexit.

It is a pity those right-wing publications that so shamelessly helped propel Johnson to power are only realising his inadequacies now that he is ensconced in Downing Street for five years. It is a shame they ignored the warnings of those that knew him well. For once, Michael Gove was speaking the truth when, in the wake of the EU referendum, he declared: “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.” Max Hastings, Johnson's old Telegraph editor, threatened to emigrate if he were elected Tory party leader, saying his elevation would “signal Britain’s abandonment of any claim to be a serious country”.

Profiling Johnson for the New Statesman in 2017, I called him a “chaotic, mendacious, philandering, egotistical, disloyal and thoroughly untrustworthy charlatan driven by ambition and self-interest”. Unlike Toby Young, I have not changed my mind.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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