Seven forgettable moments from 2021 for Boris Johnson

UK prime minister is no stranger to controversy, and 2021 has dished out plenty

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UK prime ministers are never far from the headlines – relentless attention comes with the territory. Number 10 Downing Street's current resident, however, attracts attention with an abundance that makes his prime ministerial forebears look positively publicity starved.

One could be forgiven for thinking that 2020 would prove an unbeatable high-water mark for Boris Johnson-themed column inches. After all, in April he nearly died from coronavirus before rising from his hospital bed to shepherd the UK to one of the worst Covid death tolls in the world, but setting up a vaccine task force that heralded an improvement.

Yet, in a remarkable testament to his lightning-rod credentials, in 2021 Mr Johnson assumed even greater centrality to UK life.

He may not have been admitted to hospital this year, but the prime minister still endured an embarrassing array of accidents and emergencies.

Here are seven he will wish to forget.

1. The 'cash for curtains' inquiry

In April, Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie became embroiled in a "cash for curtains" controversy over who paid for the redecoration of his flat in Downing Street.

The refurbishment was reportedly ordered after Mrs Johnson allegedly claimed the existing decor was “too John Lewis”, which did not go down well with Britain's department-store loving middle classes. Mrs Johnson is believed to have chosen £850-a-roll gold wallpaper by designer Lulu Lytle to line the walls of the flat.

The UK prime minister receives a £30,000 ($40,261) annual allowance for renovations and refurbishments, leaving Mr Johnson liable to foot the rest of the £88,000 bill. However, allegations surfaced that he had been lent – off the parliamentary books – the £58,000 shortfall by Tory donor David Brownlee.

Mr Johnson failed to deny this claim while also maintaining he had paid the difference out of his own pocket.

In the House of Commons he was goaded by Labour leader Keir Starmer, who dubbed him “Major Sleaze".

Such was the furore, the Electoral Commission launched an inquiry into whether offences had been committed.

Mr Johnson was cleared of breaching the ministerial code in May but the author of the report, Lord Geidt, called him unwise to have proceeded with the renovation without “more rigorous regard for how [it] would be funded”. It later emerged that Mr Johnson had messaged Lord Brownlow about the money, something at odds with his assurances he had not known about the source of the funding until much later. Lord Geidt was then under pressure to restore the credibility of his findings.

The Conservative Party was fined £17,800 ($23,547) for failing to keep proper records over the refurb donation, but the result was also seen as another blow to the prime minister’s authority.

2. Def con umbrella

Away from the pressures of state and controversies that can sink a career, the prime minister almost met his match in a lowly umbrella.

Prince Charles was opening a memorial to police officers, when Mr Johnson, sitting beside him for the ceremony, had trouble with the elements.

First he was unable to open the umbrella. Then he tried offering the successfully opened brolly to someone else. Then, the wind caught it and flipped it inside out.

While some, at this point, might decide to simply sit there and get wet, the prime minister tried again, to the amusement of the Prince of Wales.

3. Dominic Cummings' damning evidence to parliament

In May Boris Johnson's former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, did not so much bite the hand that fed him as devour the whole thing in a series of incendiary allegations about its owner's suitability to govern.

“Fundamentally I regarded [Boris Johnson] as unfit for the job,” Mr Cummings told a parliamentary committee as he revealed how close to Covid catastrophe the country came in early March 2020.

Appalling data collection, lack of equipment and key ministers on holiday in February put the country only days from a collapsed National Health Service and potentially 500,000 deaths, he said.

“When the public needed it most, the government failed and I'd like to say to all the families of those who died how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made.”

Mr Cummings insisted that his motivation for “everything to come out” was to avoid such disastrous mistakes being made again.

He was also highly critical of Mr Johnson for being “about 1,000 times far too obsessed with the media in a way which undermines him doing his own job”.

4. The ill-judged Margaret Thatcher coal mine closures quip

A common perception of Boris Johnson is that he is able to get away with the sort of verbal faux pas that would sink a more run-of-the-mill politician. As perceptions go, it's on the money.

In May, the endless slack Mr Johnson's acolytes cut him nearly ran out on a visit to a Scottish wind farm.

Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female prime minister, waged war on Britain's mining communities.

He remarked that former prime minister Margaret Thatcher had helped decarbonise the economy by closing coal mines.

Laughing, he riffed with a crowd of reporters that the so-called Iron Lady had given the UK “a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether”.

Noting the hacks' shocked expressions, he followed up with: “I thought that would get you going.”

Opprobrium soon followed. The comment was called “shameful” by the opposition Labour party while Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was “crass and deeply insensitive”.

It was not just his political opponents who were condemnatory. Having won a huge number of seats in the 2019 general election in communities devastated by Thatcher's war on mining, many of Mr Johnson's own MPs were also dismayed and disgusted.

5. Getting a private plane back from Cop26 to dine at a club

Before the emergence of the Omicron variant refocused the world's attention on the coronavirus pandemic, for much of November the focus of the world and its leaders turned to the Scottish city of Glasgow and the UK government-hosted Cop26 climate conference.

Never one to shirk from an opportunity to display his rhetorical muscles, Mr Johnson delivered a day-one speech, telling world leaders they need to be as heroic as British fictional icon James Bond in the fight against runaway climate change.

James Bond – not known for driving electric cars. Alamy

He said younger generations will “not forgive us” if leaders do not take their chance to deliver at the summit, and exhorted his counterparts to “get to work".

“[Bond] generally comes to the climax of his highly lucrative films strapped to a doomsday device, desperately trying to work out which coloured wire to pull to turn it off, while a red digital clock ticks down remorselessly to a detonation that will end human life as we know it,” he said.

“We are in roughly the same position, my fellow global leaders, as James Bond today – except that the tragedy is this is not a movie and the doomsday device is real.”

Using the globetrotting petrolhead James Bond to analogise the climate emergency was unwise. Yet just 24 hours later, Mr Johnson was clearly still in a Bond-like frame of mind as he hopped on to a private jet to fly the 640-odd kilometres back to London to attend a dinner for former journalists at the Daily Telegraph, hosted by the paper's erstwhile editor, the climate-change sceptic Charles Moore.

A spokesperson for the prime minister attempted to defend the trip on the grounds the chartered plane was using sustainable fuel, but the excuse failed to assuage critics who, in what has become less an accusation and more an incantation, said it was Mr Johnson once again saying one thing and doing another.

6. Delivering a paean to Peppa Pig in a bizarre speech to business leaders

Having alluded to Mr Johnson's oratorical prowess, the gift of the gab rather let him down in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry in late November.

Instead of James Bond, this time Boris Johnson invoked a British favourite: Peppa Pig. The allusion was not completely arbitrary; the day before he had visited Peppa's eponymous theme park with his wife, Carrie, and their son, Wilfred.

“I was a bit hazy about what I would find at Peppa Pig World, but I loved it,” he told the bemused audience.

“Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place.

“It has very safe streets, discipline in schools, a heavy emphasis on mass transit systems I noticed, even if they are a bit stereotypical about Daddy Pig.”

In addition to the bizarre Peppa Pig paean, Mr Johnson also lost his place in the speech, leading to an excruciating 20 seconds of paper rustling and muffled apologies.

Labour's shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, called the speech “shambolic".

“No one was laughing, because the joke's not funny any more,” she said.

7. The ghost of Christmas past

Mr Johnson's ability to deflect unwelcome scrutiny has come under question in recent weeks as the controversy over a Christmas party held at Downing Street during the height of lockdown last year threatened to derail his premiership.

In a nod to the "one rule for us" mantra the opposition sees running through Mr Johnson's government, he is now fighting off allegations that parties were held in Downing Street offices – where Number 10 is his office and home – and across government, while the rest of the country was in lockdown.

It did not help when the man called in to investigate the allegations, the country's top civil servant, recused himself – hours after reports that he had attended one of the events, where people gathered in groups in real life and virtually with colleagues.

The prime minister may have hosted more than three festive gatherings as the UK hunkered down under the strictest of coronavirus restrictions.

Critics say the fiasco yet again shows his poor judgment and predilection for bending the rules to suit his own agenda.

In one photo he is seen with his wife Carrie, their baby son and others at three tables in the Downing Street back garden, leaving his friends to argue that it was not a party because they were wearing suits.

The fall-out, played out against a backdrop of embarrassing newspaper headlines, has led to his public approval rating plunge to new lows and left some in the Westminster bubble speculating on whether his time in charge is coming to an end.

It also cost Allegra Stratton her job – forced to step down after video was released showing her joking about in the parties in a mock press conference.

Echoes of the Christmas party fall-out were also felt when the Conservatives lost the safe seat of North Shropshire. The vote was triggered by the resignation of Owen Paterson after the government failed in its attempt to block his suspension after he was found to have broken lobbying rules.

Can Mr Johnson can survive through 2022 and lead his party into the next election? If anyone can defy the gravity of political scandals it is this Teflon prime minister.

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Updated: December 29, 2021, 12:29 PM