Boris Johnson Has Survived Many Scandals. This One Is Different.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed British lawmakers in a febrile Parliament on Wednesday, he appeared to raise his eyes to the heavens for a split moment as if to seek rescue.
Was he praying for escape from the opposition lawmakers who loudly jeered what many considered to be his non-apology for attending a boozy party at Downing Street during the 2020 lockdown — after he repeatedly insisted over the past several months that he had broken no rules?
Or perhaps from the sullen members of his own political party whose view of the “Blond Bombshell” is fast transiting from electoral super-asset to toxic brand likely to lose them their seats?
Or was it from the millions like me watching — at home, in the streets, on buses, in cafes — who gasped at the entitled lack of respect he demonstrated to those of us who abided by the restrictions, in the name of the greater good, and thus never got to say goodbye to our dying mothers, fathers and friends?
The Boris Johnson show was box-office that day but it was no longer a comedy act that viewers wanted to see from Britain’s onetime favorite performer. We wanted honest and deep contrition, but we were denied it. The overall message was that he had done no wrong. And his attempt at an apology has now created a full-scale political crisis entirely of his own making.
So what might seem like an overblown reaction to a gathering in a garden — as opposed to, say, a violent insurrection — could well have historic repercussions. The signs are that even if this may not be the end of Boris Johnson as a public figure, it is almost certainly the beginning of the end for the man with “nine lives.”
For the first time, Mr. Johnson’s own side is publicly calling for his head — from the Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross to a small but growing number of veteran lawmakers. An as yet unknown number of Conservative lawmakers have already submitted formal letters of no confidence.
Just a few weeks ago, as Mr. Johnson sat on his comfy majority of nearly 80 seats, there had been talk about him staying in power for a decade. He had changed the course of British history by delivering Brexit (however disastrously) and had seemed invincible within not just his own party but the entire country. A tussle-haired phenomenon known the world over by just his first name. That makes this change of fate all the more spectacular.
As his former colleague at a British newspaper in the early 1990s and as his only independent biographer, I’ve watched closely over the years as Houdini Johnson has emerged scot free time and again from debacles that would have sunk anyone else: the accusations of corruption over the funding of a lavish upgrade to his Downing Street flat; the alleged lies he told during his campaigning for Brexit now exposed by a British economy badly struggling to cope with the consequences; the diversionary sabre rattling against the European Union that could both wreak further economic pain and even endanger peace in Ireland.
The charge sheet is endless — but so too, apparently, is the forgiveness of the British public for a man many perceive to be fun, optimistic and, despite his unfailingly elitist outlook, somehow one of us.
Mr. Johnson has also been endlessly indulged by wives who long seemed to forgive his alleged cheating for the sake of excitement, by employers who for decades overlooked his duplicity and selfishness in exchange for his stardust, by voters who traded a little chaos for his popular hail-fellow-well-met act and boosterish take on being a Brit. Even his record of presiding over the country’s disastrously high Covid death rate often elicited the response, “Well, he’s doing his best.” Or it did.
On the day Parliament grilled him over the “Partygate” allegations, he reportedly left Downing Street lying down in his official car to avoid photographers. Thousands have flocked to social media to vent their fury. Newspapers have joined in: The left-leaning Daily Mirror splashed “DISGRACE!” across its front page. The Conservative-leaning Times of London roared that “Defiant PM refuses to quit as polls slip further” — writing that a YouGov poll found that six in 10 voters want him gone. Most expect that figure only to rise in the coming days.
Clearly, something has changed. It may seem to some as a mere social kerfuffle, but it actually is a matter that cuts right to the hearts and souls of a nation. Mr. Johnson the joker is finally finding himself in the dock of public opinion, and the jury is turning against him because he has belittled our sacrifices and our pain. A search for his basic decency and compassion has discovered a man devoid of empathy, a leader who believes he is exempt from responsibility or honor. He could do what he liked with who he liked — attend a B.Y.O.B. party to enjoy the “lovely weather” — while others outside his charmed circle faced fines for meeting more than one friend outdoors.
On May 19, 2020, the day before that now infamous party in the Downing Street garden, I buried my mother, Jean. A glamorous woman who had once loved to paint, swim in the sea and party with friends, she had died, alone, of Covid. The home told me everyone else on her floor had died, too.
I had not been allowed to see her in person since March of that year because of lockdown restrictions and an overwhelmed health care system. I was informed of her death by email. By those same strict laws imposed by Mr. Johnson, only 10 people were allowed to attend her funeral. Many relatives were barred, as were all friends and neighbors. For the few allowed to join me, I handed out a single white peony to lay near her coffin. We were forbidden to touch it.
My mother, Jean, was just one of tens of thousands who died alone: sons and daughters unable to say goodbye to their parents, young mothers unable to say farewell to their children, so many deprived of the comfort of family or friends at the end, leaving those behind distraught.
Millions obeyed these strictures, with all the sacrifices they entailed, because of a sense of community. Mr. Johnson, though, apparently felt differently. And so where once he inspired affection and admiration for a maverick, freewheeling style, he now provokes anger and an almost visceral dislike for his lack of respect.
Citing a positive coronavirus test in his household, Mr. Johnson has for the moment disappeared from public view. A master of cunning, no doubt he is busy planning his next move.
While we await the outcome of an internal inquiry into not just one potentially rule-breaking party held at Downing Street but also two others, he must be well aware that the fevered speculation about his departure is now seen as a when, not if, question. And the discussion extends well beyond the corridors of power in Westminster.
Still, Mr. Johnson’s political demise may not be imminent. At least 54 members of his party must submit letters calling for a no-confidence motion to trigger a leadership contest; we’re a long way from that number. And yet, the national discussion has now turned to a “post-Boris” era.
Thinking back to his woeful performance on Wednesday, I again ask myself what Mr. Johnson might have been thinking as he seemed to look skyward. I suspect he was confronting the fact he has failed as prime minister and that history will judge him harshly. And there was part of him, I am sure, that was seeking deliverance from himself.
Sonia Purnell (@soniapurnell) is the author of “Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition” and “A Woman of No Importance.” She worked with Boris Johnson in the early 1990s when both were reporting on the European Union for The Daily Telegraph.
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