There is a very old fashioned and outdated phrase that describes perfectly the character of Boris Johnson. He is all mouth and no trousers.
Some of the things that he says sound very promising. He has after all spoken at length about levelling up, about taking the environmental crisis seriously and about following science rather than politics when it comes to policy making.
The slight problem is that his policies have actually levelled down the regions, his chancellor lowered taxes on fossil fuel days after COP26 finished in shambolic confusion, and his covid policies are increasingly driven by what he thinks he can get past the more extreme of his backbenchers.
The least-worst option for prime minister
Back at the time of the 2019 general election campaign, I spoke with over 1,000 people on the streets of a constituency that has elected a Conservative for decades. The good people of Skipton and Ripon told me again and again that they didn’t know who to vote for because they didn’t trust Boris Johnson and didn’t think Jeremy Corbyn was competent to be prime minister.
There is solid evidence from opinion polls at the time that this was the view up and down the country. Johnson spectacularly failed to achieve positive approval ratings before he got elected. People didn’t vote for him – they voted against his main opponent and so he slipped into power despite the right of centre winning only just over 47 percent of the vote and the left winning just short of 53 percent.
Not long after he came to power, we entered the pandemic. In such risky circumstances where so much depended on everyone pulling together, there was a real desire amongst large numbers of people to get behind the country’s leader and back whatever needed to be done.
He got off to a really bad start that saw him help spread the disease by letting people mingle at Cheltenham races and then nearly killed himself by ignoring advice and shaking hands with covid patients. But it wasn’t long before nightly appearances on the TV to a nation that was hungry for information and for strong leadership saw him riding high in the polls.
One rule for them
The vast majority of the nation wanted its leader to succeed in fighting this pandemic and were prepared to make incredible sacrifices to achieve that goal. Some of the psychologists that the government hired told them that the public would not put up with weeks of restrictions on their normal lives. The vast majority of the public did so for month after month and people proved willing to stand outside care home windows waving at their closest and dearest relatives who were trapped inside and to miss out on weddings, funerals, and celebrations of important events in their lives.
Instead of eating away at the popularity of our leaders, asking people to make those sacrifices added to their public appeal. Things were being said that sounded impressive. If we were all in this together then many people were prepared to cut the national leader quite a bit of slack over mistakes made under extreme pressure without the benefit of hindsight.
Now all that has changed. We weren’t in this together. The prime minister’s chief adviser was breaking the rules. The health secretary was breaking the rules. The senior civil servant who wrote the rules broke them. The prime minister broke the rules. He didn’t bend the rules. He didn’t fail to understand the rules. He knew very well that the rule was to only meet one other person outside because he announced that rule. He just cynically chose to ignore his own rules.
Is the prime minister above the law?
Some of the efforts to justify this appalling behaviour are every bit as bad as the original crime. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a lightweight figure who had to be given a Cabinet seat to placate extreme Brexit enthusiasts, had the barefaced cheek to suggest that there was no real problem with Boris Johnson breaking the rules because the rules at the time were too hard.
The rules were harsh for a reason. There was a deadly disease spreading across the country and social distancing was the only effective tool available for many months that could help fight it off. Those who missed funerals and wedding did indeed find the rules hard. It now turns out that the people who appeared on the TV night after night telling us with great seriousness exactly what we could and could not do, were breaking those rules continually and some of them still think that was OK.
Johnson is a liar and a cheat
That is a breach of trust that few people will forget quickly and many will never forgive. The nation now has ample evidence that its first opinion of Johnson was the correct one. He is a liar and a cheat who can’t be trusted to stick to his responsibilities. Either to the women he claims to love, or to the nation he claims to serve.
The party he leads is now in a complete mess as it contemplates either yet another bruising leadership election campaign or the prospect of going into local government elections in May under the leadership of someone that large numbers of the public will want to punish. It doesn’t need an operation red meat. It needs an operation to get rid of a dead beat.
Whenever Johnson goes, he will at least have the opportunity to deploy another of those old-fashioned phrases that sum up his situation so well. He will be able to tell the public that he is quitting politics to spend more time with his family.
Or to be more accurate, with his families.