At a meeting of Conservative MPs last week, an embattled Boris Johnson reportedly compared himself with Othello and cast Dominic Cummings, his adviser turned political nemesis, as Iago. Whatever the merits of this comparison, the crisis engulfing the British prime minister is certainly Shakespearean. It’s just sometimes hard to tell whether it’s a tragedy or a comedy.
Johnson has faced months of rolling revelations about social gatherings held at 10 Downing Street—apparent breaches of very strict Covid-19 lockdown rules that the prime minister inflicted on the rest of the country. Think California governor Gavin Newsom’s mask-less French Laundry outing on steroids. At a time when Brits were banned from visiting their dying relatives or attending funerals, Johnson’s top team of advisers were cavorting and boogying mask-less to ABBA.
Opposition politicians have unleashed volley after volley of righteous invective, painting the prime minister as someone who thinks rules are for little people and is incapable of leading the small group at the top of government, let alone the country. Sue Gray, an important but until recently obscure senior civil servant, is now a household name, having delivered a damning report into misconduct by Johnson and his team. The Metropolitan Police are investigating the legality of the prime minister’s office get-togethers. More than a dozen Conservative MPs have called on Johnson to resign. An unknown number have submitted letters of no confidence in him. (Fifty-four would trigger a no-confidence vote.)
The source of many of the so-called Partygate revelations is Dominic Cummings, the strategist who masterminded the campaign for Brexit, arrived in Downing Street as Johnson’s right-hand man, and resigned in the middle of the pandemic. He has described his anti-Boris takedown as “an unpleasant but necessary job. It’s like sort of fixing the drains.”
Cummings has certainly damaged his old boss, but it remains to be seen whether he will succeed in toppling him. Johnson’s polling numbers have plummeted, making even Joe Biden seem popular by comparison. Once-loyal newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail now take a more hostile line. A mercurial politician with a star power unsurpassed by anyone else in Westminster risks becoming an irredeemably damaged brand. To compare the prime minister with another libidinous, larger-than-life Brit, he resembles Austin Powers without his mojo.
Johnson has hardly inspired confidence with his response to the crisis. In a bad-tempered moment in the House of Commons last week, he launched a bombastic and unfounded attack on Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader. The broadside triggered condemnation from many on Johnson’s own side and the resignation of some of his most senior advisers.
But there is more to Partygate than meets the eye. Lurking behind the anger at the prime minister’s pandemic frolics is dissatisfaction with an ineffectual and directionless administration—one short on answers to the questions that Britain faces at a crucial juncture in its history. The sense of national rejuvenation promised by Johnson has proved elusive. Insofar as there is a hunger for something different, Johnson appears more a relic of a complacent and bungling ancien regime, not the man to deliver the change he says is needed.
New problems—soaring energy costs and growing inflation—are mounting on top of older ones such as anemic productivity growth and a badly lopsided economy. The U.K. government has done little to address these issues beyond chucking money at the National Health Service, raising taxes to pay for economic support offered during the pandemic, and talking a big game on climate policies. A much touted “leveling up agenda,” intended to rebalance the economy away from London and toward poorer parts of the country, remains little more than a catchphrase.
If mishaps like Partygate are the price Conservatives pay for having the clumsy Johnson as their leader, they could be forgiven for wondering what they are getting in return. Tellingly, Johnson responded to Partygate with what insiders have labelled “Operation Red Meat”: a series of policies designed to appeal to the party faithful—and to backbench MPs, who he hopes will give him a stay of execution. The offerings, including handing to the military the responsibility for stopping illegal migrant crossings of the English Channel and a freeze of the BBC license fee (a mandatory charge to fund the state-backed broadcaster), smell of desperation.
Not even Johnson’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders claim that he is a details-oriented guy, but the case for his premiership rested on his role as an enthusiastic and popular front man. Others could devise the policies needed to set Britain on the path to post-Brexit success; Johnson would just need to sell them. Two years on from Brexit’s implementation, however, there is little to sell and plenty to suggest that Britain has heard enough from this particular salesman.
Johnson’s ability to “slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail” once caused former prime minister David Cameron to compare him with a “greased piglet.” But it is far from clear if Johnson can save his bacon this time. And given his lackluster performance in 10 Downing Street, a trip to the political slaughterhouse might be more likely.
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