There is a war being fought at the heart of Downing Street and it is being fought on multiple fronts. In some ways the sheer level of mess involved helps the Prime Minister. When a lot of mud is being thrown, most of it misses its target or – at least – fails to stick. On the other hand, eventually, the sheer weight of the stuff can weigh even the nimblest of combatants down.
Let’s run through the mud, so far. First, the Prime Minister stands accused of ‘governing by text’ – fixing issues for those lucky enough to have his private number stored on their phone (James Dyson, the Saudi Crown Prince, goodness only knows who else). Second, his Government is engulfed in a lobbying scandal that began with David Cameron demanding special assistance for a company in which he had a very substantial financial interest and which has grown to encompass Boris’ longest-standing aide working for all sides in Government property deals. That aide has, now, quietly decamped to spend more time with his developer friends.
Third, the Prime Minister and his fiancée are accused of seeking to persuade political donors to underwrite a massive (and massively expensive) redesign of their flat. Fourth, the Prime Minister’s exiled former advisor – Dominic Cummings – continues to brief the press that Johnson not only dithered over implementing necessary lockdown measures but did so in the crassest possible manner. Fifth, the Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff are alleged to have signalled their approval of the disastrous European Super League wheeze in private, before opposing it in public. And you think you’ve got a difficult week ahead…
What – if any of this – will stick? Labour clearly believes that the murky business about the flat – which can be linked to ‘government by text’ – has a great deal of potential. This category of allegation resonates with the public perception that politics is a dirty business and that most of its practitioners are in it for themselves and for their mates rather than for the greater good. But given that this is the public’s perception – fairly or unfairly – how much harm will these revelations do to the Prime Minister specifically? Maybe a lot. But more likely the pain – the mud – coats the political class as a whole. Unless there is a smoking gun, a message from the PM begging for money for his wallpaper and offering some specific favour in return, it is unlikely that the Prime Minister will be brought down over his soft-furnishings.
More serious, perhaps, are the mounting allegations over the Prime Minister’s indecision and carelessness in his handling of COVID-19. The public supported lockdowns and wanted the Government to act more quickly and more aggressively. The Prime Minister resisted imposing a second lockdown, despite this and advice from experts, and as a result – it can be argued – many people died. Worse, this fits into a pattern of behaviour. Boris Johnson does not make decisions quickly, dislikes importing difficult news and has a track-record of betting on optimism in extremis. See also the alleged volte-face on the Super League. Boris Johnson likes an easy life and says or does whatever he feels is the easiest thing to say or do. There are consequences for this.
Of course, the Government hopes that our astonishing progress on vaccinations will launder their more mixed, general track-record on the pandemic. That may be the case. But once the relief of vaccination and re-opening has passed, how long will gratitude be the order of the day? As we survey the wreckage, begin to count our dead and try to heal perhaps we will collectively become less forgiving of our Government and more prone to asking difficult questions. Particularly as the inevitable public inquiry begins its work.
In the meantime, there is no reason to believe that the mud will stop oozing. The Cabinet Secretary is today giving Parliament his account of the lobbying shenanigans and the flat redecoration and all that jazz. In a few weeks, Cummings will tell another Select Committee about Johnson’s behaviour during the pandemic. A briefing war between Boris and Dom and Carrie and the whole cast of interested, aggrieved parties continues to play out.
If you are tempted to feel sorry for the Conservative MPs and Cabinet Ministers who find themselves sticks in the mud then give yourself a moment to reflect on an important question. Do they really have any right to be surprised by any of this? What did they think would happen when they made this man their party’s leader and their Prime Minister? None of which is to say that there is nothing that commends him to these roles, but merely to point out that it was a matter of public record that Johnson massages the truth, has a turbulent domestic life and precarious finances and was determined to bring people like Cummings into Government. He is – first and foremost – a populist rhetorician. He always has been. And Tory MPs who find themselves concerned by his flip flopping on lockdowns or his appeasement of donors and football club owners or his bitter feuds with people he chose as his consiglieres have no more right to be shocked than does Arlene Foster about his betrayal of Ulster unionists. Be worried about it by all means but you can’t really claim to be disappointed. Nonetheless, with Labour nowhere really it will be these Conservative parliamentarians who determine Johnson’s fate. If one or more factions decide that it has all become far too muddy and far too incompetent then he will fall. If not – and as things stand, there is not yet that strength of feeling – then he is safe.
If nothing else, all this does at least serve to test to destruction the defining hypothesis of Boris Johnson’s political and personal life – that, in the end, he can get away with anything. After all, if the Prime Minister emerges from this – assailed on multiple fronts, accused of corruption and of fatal incompetence, attacked by his closest adviser and abandoned by his longest-standing aide – then what hope does anyone have of making anything stick?