How high a price will Boris Johnson pay for 'partygate'?

Until now, he has been Britain’s Teflon prime minister – nothing sticks, not policy failures, not scandals

Boris Johnson switches on the Christmas tree lights outside 10 Downing Street in London, December 1. EPA
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Can Boris Johnson survive as Britain’s prime minister? If I could reliably predict the future I’d be making a living on horse racing, but I will try to answer that question in a moment. Clearly 2021 is ending disastrously for Mr Johnson. Until now, he has been Britain’s Teflon prime minister. Nothing sticks – not his policy failures, nor what British people have seen of his deceptions and the numerous allegations of dodgy dealings about money, cronyism and patronage. But Teflon Boris has worn thin. So has his comic persona in such serious times, with another wave of coronavirus upon us. One successful prediction that I did make about Mr Johnson was published in The National in October 2020. I wrote that 2019 had been Johnson’s year of great successes in becoming prime minister, leading his party to an 80-seat majority, but by 2021 he would hit the hard brick wall of reality. There would be a series of failures and broken promises. And so it has proved.

More than 146,000 British people have now died with the coronavirus. The Johnson government was slow to react and remains conflicted on what to do. There is a backlash within his own Conservative party against his announcement of new Covid-19 restrictions, despite fears that the National Health Service is near to being overwhelmed.

Then there is Brexit, which despite his boasts, is not “done”. Far from it. Mr Johnson is trying to unpick the deal he negotiated, in a way that has irritated Ireland and much of the EU, and ultimately has ensured that his much-promoted idea of a US-UK trade deal is unlikely to happen with the Biden administration.

A protester by the Houses of Parliament, in London, Wednesday, December 8. AP

He is also at loggerheads with France over asylum seekers. Then there is the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. The incompetence of the Johnson government has cost the lives of Afghans who tried to help the British against the Taliban. The British economy is under-performing, thanks to Brexit. Taxes are going up. So is inflation. GDP is predicted to underperform by 4 per cent. Promises about building 40 new hospitals and a new high-speed trainline connecting northern English cities have proved to be questionable salesmanship. And almost daily the Johnson administration is mired in allegations of sleaze and lying.

What was not predictable, however, was that the one scandal which would cut through to British voters would involve a Christmas quiz hosted by Johnson at Downing Street. At the informal party, the staff drank alcohol while the rest of the country was under severe coronavirus restrictions, and ordinary citizens who held parties were fined for committing a criminal offence. The recording of Johnson’s staff laughing and joking as they rehearsed how to handle this potential scandal nicknamed “Partygate,” became a worldwide viral sensation. It came as British families mourned their coronavirus dead or restricted their behaviour to obey Mr Johnson’s own government rules.

A protester holds a placard on the edge of Parliament Square across the street from the Houses of Parliament, in London, December 8. AP

As a classics scholar, Mr Johnson will know the observation of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “character is destiny”. That is both Johnson’s strength and his likely downfall. He has been able to change his policies, break his promises, promote fantastic schemes for bridges, airports and new hospitals that never get built, and still be popular with voters who never much believed him anyway.

They immediately saw his character as that of a shambolic personality who could break the mould of politics-as-usual, and that was attractive to some. But the other part of Mr Johnson’s character is of someone who sees rules as only for the little people, not for himself, combined with the British Labour party leader Kier Starmer’s characterisation of Mr Johnson as a “trivial” man, incapable of being truly serious in serious times.

Mr Johnson, therefore, looks to be in the twilight of his political career. A special by-election takes place on Thursday in North Shropshire, a rock solid Conservative seat, one of the safest in England. If the Conservatives were to lose there, then Mr Johnson’s key attraction to his party – being a vote winner – will have gone, and so, soon, could he. But assuming his party does retain this North Shropshire seat, Boris Johnson will likely stagger on into 2022, distrusted, and plagued by scandals which will multiply. His Downing Street staff are unlikely to be loyal to a leader who seems to regard those around him as a human shield, to be sacked to save his own career.

If this prediction is correct, then 2022 will begin with Mr Johnson in office but not really in power, wounded and weakened. That may suit Mr Johnson’s opponents in the Labour party, who have been revitalised in recent weeks and who scent blood. A new Conservative leader, a new prime minister, someone more competent and hardworking than Boris Johnson, could quite possibly revive the Conservative party’s fortunes. If Mr Johnson cares about his country or his party then he will go. If he cares only about himself, he will stay. His character suggests he will stay, twisting in the wind.

Published: December 13, 2021, 2:00 PM