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Wednesday, 22 May 2024
Boris under unprecedented pressure
Ian Black
Boris Johnson has had an unusually stressful week. On top of dealing with the new Covid variant Omicron, he has been forced to handle widespread accusations of lying to parliament about a Christmas party held by his own staff at 10 Downing Street last year. That happened at the height of the winter pandemic lockdown which he was blamed for introducing too late and generally behaving in a characteristically bumbling way.

And even worse for the British prime minister, he is having to respond to growing criticism from his own Conservative back-bench MPs about the new Omicron-related restrictions – referred to as “Plan B “ – which effectively constitute a new lockdown at the busiest time of the year, certainly for the UK retail and entertainment sectors. A parliamentary vote is due on those rules.

Add to that revelations about the pricey refurbishment of the apartment where Johnson and his family live above No 11 Downing Street, the office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, funded by a wealthy party donor, and Boris is facing the worst crisis ever in his two years as premier. Next week also looks extremely challenging.

Johnson’s personal life has not been without joyous distractions: last Thursday his wife Carrie gave birth to a healthy baby girl – their second child after their son Wilfred was born in April 2020. But that happy news was incorporated in media coverage of the escalating political drama, with one London newspaper headlining the overall story as “the daddy of all hangovers” and “Oh baby! Revolt on all front over new curbs.”

Just the day before, Boris had apologised to the House of Commons about the No 10 party on December 18 2020, following the leak of a video that showed laughing communications staff practising for a press conference anticipating journalists’ questions about the Xmas event. He said he was furious about the party, insisted yet again it had not broken any Covid rules, and announced that the cabinet secretary would investigate the allegations.

It would be an understatement to describe the prime minister’s statement as unconvincing, not least to his own MPs who were angry about his lack of credibility in announcing yet another set of pandemic restrictions in response to the Omicron variant, which is now predicted to spread at a frightening pace to all parts of the UK in the coming days and weeks. The new rules include working from home, as well as vaccine passports required to attend large gatherings.

Of course the opposition made hay while the sun was shining. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, stopped short of calling for Johnson’s resignation – but only just - while the head of the Scottish Nationalist Party in the House of Commons, Ian Blackford, said explicitly that the prime minister should resign. But the PM simply hunkered down, refused to answer any questions and repeatedly said he intended to “get on with the job”.
And Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, called for Johnson to go after a newspaper revealed that he had taken part in another social event flanked by two close aides – one of them wearing tinsel round his neck. The No 10 press office described this as “virtual quiz.”
The key question is how long Boris can remain in his job because of the opposition’s main argument that he behaves as if he is exempt from the restrictions that he and his ministerial colleagues decide on and that everyone else has to follow. Anger with the prime minister is at a record level across the country. His popularity is at an all-time low.
One senior Tory MP suggested Johnson's job was at risk, telling the BBC. "Every lie just compounds the problem. But lying eventually catches people out. Another awful mess created out of Downing St. Question now …is Boris reaching a tipping point - where he is becoming a liability and no longer an asset?"

Another veteran Tory, Sir Roger Gale, led the backbench outcry, declaring that the situation bore “all the hallmarks of another ‘Barnard Castle’ moment” – a reference to the prime minister’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, driving 260 miles during strict lockdown conditions last year. “No 10 clearly has some serious questions to answer. Fast,” the MP tweeted.
The British press, smelling a good and dramatic story, is extremely critical of Johnson. On the BBC, the journalist and presenter, Andrew Marr, opened his popular Sunday interview programme by saying that in 40 years of covering politics he does not remember newspapers being “this hostile” to a prime minister.

An opinion poll published by the Observer found that Johnson’s personal ratings have fallen to -35%, down 14 points from what was already a record low of -21% two weeks ago. It also discovered that 57% of voters think Boris should go. I agree entirely. He is incompetent, arrogant, treats the British public with contempt and is not fit to end this appalling Covid crisis – whatever the current variant. Perhaps he should consider taking extended paternity leave to spend more time with his new baby daughter. At least she is too young to complain about his behaviour!