For U.K.’s Johnson, plenty of mud but will it stick?

By Mark Landler and Stephen Castle

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long had a weakness for a funny line, even in the face of an unfunny problem like the pandemic. When coronavirus cases first spiked last spring, he promised that a lockdown would “squash the sombrero.” When he spoke to businesspeople about an emergency plan to manufacture ventilators, he joked that it could be called “Operation Last Gasp.”

Now, Johnson stands accused of something darker: declaring at a tense meeting last fall that he would not bow to pressure to impose yet another lockdown, even if it meant letting “the bodies pile high in their thousands.”

He has denied the claim, made by anonymous sources to multiple British newspapers. But the papers, as well as the BBC, are not backing down from their reporting. The dispute has called into question not just Johnson’s credibility, which is regularly in doubt, but also his humanity, which is usually not.

It is one of a welter of charges and countercharges that have flown around the prime minister’s offices and residence in Downing Street since last week, when a nasty feud broke out between Johnson and his disaffected former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings — a man who helped vault Johnson to power and now seems bent on tearing him down.

Among other things, Cummings accused Johnson of secretly planning to use political donations to pay for the costly refurbishment of his Downing Street home, and of trying to shut down an investigation of who leaked plans for a lockdown when it became clear that the probable leaker was a friend of his fiancée, Carrie Symonds.

“Boris Johnson has a serious problem with Cummings going rogue because everything we know about Dominic Cummings is that he is a loose cannon,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent and an expert on the British right. “You don’t want him in the opposition camp.”

While the backbiting and knife fighting have riveted Britain’s political class, some analysts question whether it resonates much beyond the hothouse precincts of Westminster. Britons, they say, are more swayed by their country’s robust vaccine rollout and their ability to buy a pint at the pub after a year of grinding lockdowns. Plus, after decades on the political stage, Johnson’s foibles are hardly new.

As Goodwin put it, “The fact that he is seen as a bit of a clown and a bit of a buffoon is priced in.”

And yet, new polling data suggests that the steady drip of damaging charges is hurting Johnson with voters. Nearly 60% of people surveyed viewed the prime minister as untrustworthy, according to a new poll by the firm Ipsos Mori, compared with just 35% who viewed him as trustworthy.

In its sheer volume and bitterness, the palace intrigue is reminiscent of the Trump White House. After President Donald Trump ousted senior officials like Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, and John Bolton, one of his national security advisers, the administration was beset with unflattering, anonymously sourced accounts of the president’s behavior — or that of his purged lieutenants.

“What happened with Trump doesn’t usually happen in Downing Street,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The more common phenomenon in No. 10 is that it goes into a bunker mentality. But clearly, getting rid of Cummings hasn’t stopped the leaking.”

The danger, he and other analysts said, is that the score settling could destabilize Johnson’s Conservative government much as it did Trump’s White House. Cummings posed a particular threat, they said, because of the central role he played in plotting the successful “Vote Leave” campaign before the 2016 Brexit referendum and in shaping the early response to the pandemic.

What worries Conservatives is that Cummings could have further ammunition to deploy against his former boss, and the opportunity to present it next month when he is called to testify before a parliamentary committee. His evidence could form the basis of a formal inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

A steady stream of further allegations against Johnson could allow the Labour Party to build a narrative of sleazy dealings, cronyism and lying that inflicts real damage on a government that has overcome its succession of mistakes in its handling of the pandemic, largely thanks to the vaccine rollout.

Some analysts predicted the public would be forgiving of Johnson’s outburst about the lockdown because they, too, found the repeated restrictions burdensome and because no one believes he would actually welcome thousands of deaths. They would also take into account his own ordeal with the virus and his decision to order another severe lockdown after Christmas.

“People can be cross because they are tired,” said Andrew Gimson, one of Johnson’s biographers. “He was exhausted and he’d been through a near-fatal illness, from which he had not fully recovered when he made that remark.”

Others, however, predicted that the flap over Johnson’s refurbishment of his apartment would throw a harsh spotlight on his sense of impunity, lack of transparency and unwillingness to make do with the perks offered a prime minister.

Johnson already has access to an annual public grant of 30,000 pounds ($41,600) to upgrade his quarters. Newspaper reports say he augmented that with funds from a Conservative Party donor because Symonds wanted to get rid of the furniture used by his predecessor, Theresa May, which had been described as being in the style of the British department store, John Lewis.

The government insists Johnson paid for the upgrade out of his own pocket, though it is unclear whether he repaid money from the donor. However it was financed, the couple’s apparent disdain for John Lewis-style décor may sit badly with ordinary people, for whom the store is a symbol of bourgeois prosperity.

“Johnson has always stayed one step ahead of the sheriff,” Powell said. “But at some stage in No. 10, you can’t get away with lies that can be proven to be lies.”

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