The opening of the 2022 Six Nations rugby championship this weekend is a reminder of what will be one of the memorable images of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s time in power.
Two years ago, Mr Johnson was in the flush of victory after landing a surprise 80-seat majority in the late 2019 election. In March 2020, he went to the Twickenham stadium in south-west London for an England game.
Covid-19 was circulating but the UK government was not paying much attention. Mr Johnson himself missed a handful of Cabinet-level crisis meetings on the emergence of the new disease. He stood in the stands wearing a padded black Barbour jacket that in many ways represented campaign armour. There were no masks in sight. By his side was Carrie, the woman who would soon be his third wife, and the couple glowed from the photos as the stadium hummed with excitement for the game.
Mr Johnson once compared his quest for power to the dynamics of rugby. Speaking to the broadcaster Michael Cockerell about his prospects, Mr Johnson said he would only succeed if the ball came loose from the scrum (for the uninitiated, the rugby scrum is the heart of the game that moves possession and territory under the weight of half the players on the field). The metaphor eventually came good because it took the Brexit referendum to loosen the leadership grip of the party establishment on the Conservatives. The maverick Mr Johnson grabbed the ball and ran away with it.
After weeks of pressure in the Partygate affair, Mr Johnson is probably thinking of his premiership in rugby terms.
One aspect of the game is phases of attack – where one team can push to score in waves, known as phases. A team can be buffeted by 40 or more phases and still see off an attacking attempt. What’s required is a dogged determination to cover all defensive lines, go to ground and then push back. Mr Johnson will undoubtedly be thinking that his side is still in the game as long as it is still defending against all oncoming onslaughts.
The cost has been horrendous. Mr Johnson lost four key figures in his government on Thursday alone, including his chief of staff and head of the policy unit. In rugby, too, the loss of players and the rotation of substitutes is part of the roiling tempo of the game. To the fore has come another team of loyalists to spearhead the fightback. Andrew Griffith, one of those, has been made the new head of the policy unit.
Those who have worked closest with Mr Johnson know that his character can never change. As Malcolm Rifkind, a former UK foreign secretary, said last week, Mr Johnson is a complex figure who came to the job fully formed. Mr Rifkind noted his intelligence and that he not only reads books deeply but writes them.
With great talent can also come a belief that everything will fall into place by its own volition. When Mr Johnson was getting married for a second time in the 1990s in Brussels, he remembered on the morning of the wedding he had not got the legal paperwork from his first divorce.
A call to an associate working early morning in London’s Canary Wharf area was made. This triggered a trip across town to Westminster Town Hall to retrieve the document, which was then faxed to Mr Johnson at Brussels city hall to allow the marriage to proceed that morning. When bureaucrats complain that there is no process in Mr Johnson’s administration, they would do well to remember this basic letdown.
In approaching each day, what is important to Mr Johnson is a set of tactical operational drivers. His jibe against UK Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer last week about failing to prosecute the child abuser Jimmy Savile during the latter’s time as director of public prosecutions seems to have been a "dead cat". By throwing the false claim out there and leaving it by not apologising, Mr Johnson ensured there was a talking point outside serious allegations of the police looking at lockdown parties in Downing Street during the pandemic.
The move backfired when a member of staff who has worked with him for 13 years, Munira Mirza, quit. Mr Johnson’s reaction was to flood the news cycle with more bad news for himself. Clearing the decks is another Johnson tactic from the playbook. When someone walks out on him, there will be a shrug and a cry of "Next!".
Like the certainty that there will be an allusion to ancient Greece or a cartoon character in his speeches, it is a given that Mr Johnson is ruthless and is never going to give up. In calling on heroic qualities hour by hour, he has no other tools left to use. Tempers around him are frayed. Many of those who will decide on his future, both the exiting staff in Downing Street with more stories to tell and the MPs who get to vote on his leadership, do not share his tribal impulses. Bureaucratic process and scientific management tools are the antithesis of how Mr Johnson operates.
Halting the onslaught and regaining ground are looking ever more beyond his energies.