STEPHEN GLOVER: As Boris Johnson’s many enemies rejoice, I feel a deepening despair. Why does he keep shooting himself in the foot?
Boris Johnson is the greatest political escapologist of our time. When I first came across him nearly a quarter of a century ago, he was known by some of his colleagues as ‘the greased piglet’.
The idea was that when he seemed to be cornered, he would somehow slip through the fingers of his pursuers, and rush off in another direction to make mischief somewhere else.
So those who are prophesying his imminent demise as a result of the latest episode in the always gripping Johnson saga should probably think again. Boris defies political gravity. Those who write him off do so at their peril.
Nonetheless, no one watching him yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions could doubt that he is in a scrape. He knows it, too. During his exchanges with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, he tended to look downwards. He was unusually disconsolate, though still pugnacious.
Boris Johnson (pictured) is the greatest political escapologist of our time. He defies political gravity. Those who write him off do so at their peril
The accusation is that he has lied when claiming not to know about a party that appears to have taken place in No 10 on December 18 last year. Previously, he had repeated the mantra that no Covid rules were broken, and enjoined ministers to say the same.
He is now prepared to accept that the party may have happened after all, and has asked the Cabinet Secretary (who is the most senior civil servant in the land, and expected to be scrupulously impartial) to investigate. If only he had said what he said yesterday a week ago!
Enemies of Boris Johnson will instantly disbelieve his assertion that he knew, and knows, nothing about any Covid-busting party. Is it really possible that 40 people could attend it (the number cited by the Boris- hating Daily Mirror) without his being aware?
Conceivably. No 10 is bigger than it looks from the outside. Boris may have been tucked up with Carrie in their flat above No 11, or otherwise engaged. Certainly no one suggests he was at the party himself.
Nor should we dismiss the possibility that it wasn’t a party in the normal sense of the word, but rather an impromptu opening of a few bottles of wine by some tired and overworked employees. Knowing that they were doing wrong, they may have been as quiet as church mice.
Still, it’s hard to believe that no one mentioned even muted festivities to him the next day, or over the following days. There must have been one or two people with bleary eyes and sore heads whom the normally sharp-eyed Boris would have noticed.
I think it is quite likely that at some stage he did learn that there had been a small celebration, though he may have forgotten. Being by nature generous and genial, he may have felt that he shouldn’t reprove young people for enjoying themselves, despite their breaking Covid rules.
Allegra Stratton, who tearfully quit her job as a government spin doctor yesterday afternoon, seems not to have gone to the shindig. It was she who appeared in the video clip, leaked on Tuesday, in which she flippantly implied there had been a party, causing the PM to be ‘furious’ and ‘sickened’.
The pity — whether he knew about the party or not — is that he has again given the impression that there is one very lax set of rules for him and his chums, and another much more demanding set for the rest of us.
During his exchanges with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer , the PM tended to look downwards
People first suspected the operation of double standards in April 2020 when his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, clearly broke lockdown rules by driving to Barnard Castle, and was immediately forgiven by the Prime Minister. Later, of course, Mr Cummings turned on his protector.
Indeed, yesterday the former chief adviser again jumped on the anti-Johnson bandwagon by tweeting there was a bash in No 10 on the evening of November 13 last year during lockdown, hours after he had been sent packing by Boris.
There have been other examples of the PM’s tendency to divide humanity into his gang and the rest. When Home Secretary Priti Patel was found guilty by an official report of breaking the ministerial code by her bullying of staff, Mr Johnson privately urged Tory MPs to ‘form a square around the Pritster’.
I observed his tendency to identify strongly with his own tribe at a recent dinner when Boris was a contented guest among 30 former journalists who, like him, had at some stage worked for the Daily Telegraph. Though perhaps not given to close friendships, he feels strong loyalty to former and existing colleagues — provided they don’t challenge his power.
This two-tier classification is dangerous in any politician. It could become fatal in a prime minister. Yesterday the airwaves were full of people who had lost close relatives to Covid.
They couldn’t understand why, when rule-makers were illegally making hay at No 10, they had been prevented from visiting their nearest and dearest as they were dying — and had risked fines if they disobeyed the law.
Allegra Stratton, (pictured) who tearfully quit her job as a government spin doctor yesterday afternoon
People expect politicians to lie, though Mr Johnson may be relying too much on their indulgence. What they can’t bear is this sense that there is one rule for an elite — in this case, Tories and the PM’s pals — and another for them.
That is the grim outcome of this episode. Although I didn’t think Sir Keir Starmer succeeded yesterday in eviscerating the Prime Minister in the Commons, he was right to suggest that he had lost ‘moral authority’.
The gradual ebbing away of that authority isn’t just bad for Mr Johnson, the Government and the Tories. At this moment it is also bad for the country.
For hours after his appearance in the Commons, the Prime Minister was on our screens unveiling a new batch of Covid restrictions including Covid passports. Some are reasonably suggesting that the timing of this announcement was calculated to draw attention away from his own predicament.
I believe the new rules are premature, given that no one yet knows how lethal — or relatively harmless — the Omicron variant will be. According to one economic think tank, the measures could cost the economy an enormous £4 billion a month.
‘People expect politicians to lie, though Mr Johnson may be relying too much on their indulgence’, writes STEPHEN GLOVER
How will an already fatigued population react to a batch of new regulations after the revelation that No 10 didn’t follow the old ones? The British are a law-abiding people but they don’t appreciate being asked to accept sacrifices which their rulers won’t make.
So far as the charges against Mr Johnson are concerned, they obviously haven’t gone away. The Cabinet Secretary will need to produce a rigorous report. If he were to come up with a whitewash, he would destroy his reputation.
But the most damaging legacy of this unnecessary act of self-harm — coming weeks after the Owen Paterson affair, when the PM was eager to tear up disciplinary rules to help a mate before changing his mind — is indeed likely to be the Government’s diminishing moral authority.
As the Prime Minister’s many enemies rejoice, and can hardly believe their luck at this latest self-inflicted wound, it’s hard not to feel a deepening despair.
Like millions of others, I still want him to prove himself a good leader. I haven’t given up all hope. And yet Boris Johnson seems perversely determined to go on shooting himself in the foot.
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