Last week was a bad one for Boris Johnson. The one bright spot was the birth of what is believed to be his seventh child, delivered safely on Thursday. Everything else looked bleak as his lifelong estrangement from the truth finally began to catch up with him, and now threatens to bring his charmed political life to an abrupt end.
He looks under siege. Crises are starting to crash against the door of No 10 with such force and frequency, the prime minister increasingly looks to be at the centre of a continuous storm raging in Downing Street.
Prime minister’s questions (PMQs) on Wednesday was taken up with the ongoing row over the 18 December Christmas party he denied had taken place, supercharged after ITV’s timely release the previous evening of the Allegra Stratton video discussing how such a party should be denied.
At moments like this a prime minister needs the support of colleagues, yet not a single minister was prepared to appear on television to defend him. At PMQs he looked a broken man. One Tory MP went so far as to suggest the expected announcement of sweeping new covid restrictions against the latest omicron variant was being used as a smokescreen for Johnson’s political problems.
The word ‘embattled’ does not seem out of place. He has weathered previous storms but his sheer venality is now starting to cut through with voters.
In Johnson’s world nothing is real and anything is possible
Coincidentally, on Wednesday Alex Massie, Scotland editor at The Spectator, where Johnson himself once held court, published an article: Boris Johnson is eating reality, Nothing is real and anything is possible. The title seems partly to come from Peter Pomerantsev’s 2016 book about Russia, (Nothing is true and everything is possible) and there are indeed many parallels with Putin who also sits atop a vast kleptocracy sustained by lies.
Massie questions what Johnson is for:
“What does Johnson actually want to do as Prime Minister? Your guess will have to be better than mine because I haven’t a clue. To the extent the government has an agenda at all, it is one marked by staggering incoherence.”
He says, “All governments have moments when the truth becomes a problem but in this ministry’s case the lies serve no great matter of state. They are merely routine, a now-standard way of doing business.”
The Spectator used to be generally regarded as a supporter of the Tory party.
The Christmas Party
It transpires that Johnson’s director of communications, Jack Doyle, the man behind the strategy of denying there was a Christmas party in Downing Street on 18 December, actually attended the very same party, even giving a speech to the 50 or so revellers. Doyle is also said to have handed out mock awards. He has now offered his resignation, but Johnson has refused it.
Dominic Cummings suggests the PM is holding Doyle hostage until the arrival of the next bus driven by cabinet secretary Simon Case, under which he will then be thrown.
Doyle was understudy to James Slack, who left government in March this year to join The Sun, which has been strangely silent on the ‘party gate’ issue. Private Eye claims this is because the Murdoch-owned tabloid held its own alcohol-fuelled bash on 18 December, sans social distancing and against covid rules.
When Slack was approached to confirm he also was at the No 10 party he is said to have replied with a terse, “no comment.” I don’t know about you, but if asked if I had attended a party that had or hadn’t taken place, I might have been able to offer slightly more certainty.
The sorry truth seems to be that in order to function at all, Boris Johnson, who as we know is mendacity made flesh, has had to surround himself with people who are prepared to be untruthful on his behalf. No government he leads could ever have been otherwise. They are all tainted by association.
Almost certainly the reason Stratton never gave any Downing Street press briefings from the purpose built £2.6m suite is because she was unable to keep a straight face whilst delivering flat out lies. It takes an expensive Eton education to do that. She only attended Latymer Upper school in Hammersmith.
There are now risible calls for Johnson to ‘come clean’ from people who should know better. He is congenitally incapable of coming clean. That is the problem.
The flat refurbishment comes back to haunt him
In the middle of all this, the Electoral Commission (EC) decide to release the result of its investigation into the financing of Johnson’s flat refurbishment last year. It found the Tory party had broken electoral law in not properly declaring a donation from Lord Brownlow, for which they were fined £17,800.
But more than that, Sam Coates at Sky quickly picked up a discrepancy in the evidence gathered by the EC. Johnson had asked Brownlow by WhatsApp for more money on 29 November 2020 but earlier this year had told Lord Geidt, his adviser on ministerial ethics, that the first he knew about the source of the money was when it broke in the press in February 2021.
Johnson’s defence is that he didn’t know Lord Brownlow was providing the money for his flat. In other words, he thought the peer was acting as the head of a yet-to-be-set-up trust, rather than the donor.
But why did Johnson appoint a man worth £267m to raise £112,000 to pay for his fancy wallpaper? Who did he think Lord Brownlow, one of the wealthiest men in England, was going to ask for money?
And scanning the EC report it seems Brownlow, a Liverpool-born ex-Thames Valley police officer, was in more or less constant contact with Cabinet Office staff, Tory party officials, and the supplier of the refurbishments from July 2020 to the following February. The only person who apparently didn’t know it was Brownlow’s money all this time was the prime minister himself.
Johnson’s first adviser on ministerial standards, Sir Alex Allan, resigned in November 2020 over the PMs failure to sack Priti Patel for bullying. Now a year later, Allan’s replacement Lord Geidt is said to be on the verge of quitting after it appears Johnson ‘misled’ him about how much he knew of where the money for refurbishing his flat came from.
His political troubles are now cutting through
It has often seemed to the prime minister’s many detractors that no matter how outrageous his behaviour, voters supported him. Indeed, this was his unique selling point for the Conservative Party.
That no longer seems to be the case. By the end of the week, polling by focaldata and YouGov had Labour with an eight-point lead amid a spectacular collapse in voters’ opinion of Johnson. Support for the Tories has tumbled dramatically. Three-quarters of those polled say that their opinion of the PM has worsened over the past few weeks.
Another poll by YouGov shows the prime minister’s popularity had sunk to an all-time low of minus 40.
The North Shropshire by-election is coming up next week and a poor result in what has hitherto been a rock-solid Tory seat would probably prompt a lot of unhappy Tory MPs to send in letters of no confidence to the powerful 1922 backbench committee. A leadership race could then be triggered.
At the same time, the rise in Labour’s fortunes is likely to silence many Starmer critics.
No light at the end of the tunnel
As 2021 draws to a close, a flurry of economic data shows the brutal impact of Brexit on Britain’s trade.
A ‘cost of Brexit’ analysis by the Centre for European Reform is consistently showing the UK’s goods trade between 11 and 16 percent lower as a result of Brexit.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has concluded that the free trade agreements with Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the US are collectively, and at most, worth a paltry 0.16 percent of GDP, equivalent to £3.4bn. This compares with the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasting a 4 percent fall in GDP (£85bn) due to leaving the single market. Business investment has plummeted.
And a member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee has pointed out that Britain’s overseas trade has performed badly since 2009 compared with the four largest EU economies of Germany, France, Italy and Spain. We were falling steadily behind even before 2016, but Brexit has seen trade fall away even faster, prompting The Daily Express to run with the headline: UK trade has shrunk since Brexit while EU thrives.
In January, new import controls take effect which are bound to depress trade even further. And the BBC reports that next year families face a ‘double whammy’ of rising council tax bills across much of England at the same time as significant national insurance increases.
It looks like the beginning of the end for Boris Johnson.