From “Operation Save Big Dog” to “Operation Red Meat” and from referencing Peppa Pig World to quoting “The Lion King” and Kermit the Frog, this is just a taster of what people in the UK have gotten used to hearing from Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he attempts to steer the country out of the COVID-19 crisis and negotiate the impacts of Brexit.
I must admit that, after more than 30 years working in the UK and following its political developments, I can only repeat a Turkish proverb that has recently been used to explain the fate of the country under Johnson. It says: “When a clown moves into a palace, he does not become a king, the palace simply becomes a circus.”
What has happened in the “partygate” saga, Johnson’s less-than-convincing defense against the findings in Sue Gray’s “update,” the staff resignations that have hit 10 Downing Street, the policies hurried out to serve as a smokescreen and the half-baked plan to “level up” the country will at some point conspire to further erode public trust in his premiership. They could also further dent the UK’s standing and leadership in the world.
Spin and lies seem to be the key weapons in Johnson’s armory as he tries to defend his record, his decision-making and his leadership. Serious questions were raised about a culture of “one rule for us and another for them” when it was revealed that more than a dozen parties had taken place in 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was locked down, with the PM reportedly in attendance for at least some of them.
Though Johnson denies he has lost control, the opposition parties and some of his own MPs have called on him to quit. He has boasted that “you’ll need a tank division to get me out,” while continuing to insist he has done nothing wrong.
Many Conservative Party politicians are willing to think that he might change, despite him being accused of telling lies and misrepresenting facts throughout his working life. But maybe their patience is running out as, under Johnson, the Conservatives were losing political ground even before the so-called partygate scandal broke. Issues such as the financial squeeze on households — which, in Tory minds, has nothing to do with Brexit of course — soaring energy prices, labor shortages, the failure to stem migrant flows into Britain, hypocrisy among his team, the Owen Paterson scandal and several assorted sleaze stories had already damaged the reputation of this government and the party.
In a bid to shift the focus from its leader’s troubles, the government has been making plenty of big economic announcements aimed at delivering on its election manifesto to level up prosperity across the UK, tearing up planning restrictions and promising to make Britain a science superpower with more jobs and higher pay, despite inflation hitting the roof. A weakened Johnson has been playing to the crowd in the Conservative Party, most dangerously with illiberal legislation proposals that are likely to squeeze civil liberties and restrict the rights of new UK citizens.
Worse still, the government has repeatedly congratulated itself for recording the fastest growth among G7 economies and cutting crime by 14 percent, but a closer look reveals yet another manipulation of the truth. The country’s growth levels were only high over one specific period because its economy had plunged lower than the rest of the G7’s as a result of the pandemic. And it was only theft that had been reduced by 14 percent as a result of lockdowns, whereas crime overall has increased in the face of an understaffed police force and underfunded courts system.
Johnson’s behavior continues to upset those who voted him into office and anger his fellow MPs. The PM, who in 2019 won the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher, could soon face a challenge to his leadership. If 54 of the 360 Conservative MPs write letters of no confidence, it would trigger a vote. While that threshold has not yet been met, a YouGov poll conducted at the end of January showed that 63 percent of voters want Johnson to resign.
Even if he survives the coming weeks, his premiership will always be debilitated, as those around him have been busier planning to succeed him than trying to address the many challenges facing the country.
The irony is that, nowadays, only Johnson believes he is likely to beat Thatcher’s record of 11 years in power. I believe that the damage caused on his watch to the UK, its domestic prosperity, its European leadership and international stature might last longer than Thatcher’s reign unless the Conservatives wake up and remove him and his government from office. Many believe Johnson and his Cabinet are bordering on being childish and are lacking seriousness in their approach to the business of conceiving and devising policies and redeeming their lost direction and authority.
“I Will Survive” — Gloria Gaynor’s hit song — is reportedly what the PM sang when he welcomed his new communications director this week. The appointee, who had worked with Johnson when he was mayor of London, has arrived fresh and ready to work after being quoted in a Welsh newspaper saying that he believes the PM is “not a complete clown.”
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