The plot couldn’t be more familiar: criminal mastermind gets away with endless daring escapades, and is brought down in the end by some silly little mistake.
That’s Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who slid effortlessly through endless scrapes and scandals that would have finished off a lesser scoundrel. Not for nothing did his former colleagues at the ‘Daily Telegraph’ know him as the ‘Greased Albino Piglet’. But to be brought down by completely harmless parties! Humiliating.
This week may be when ‘Boris’ (always known by his first name) gets his comeuppance at last. Not only is he awaiting judgement by senior civil servant Sue Gray for more than a dozen staff parties (with drinks) at his official residence, No. 10 Downing St., in a time of lockdown. Now the police are looking into his behaviour too.
It seems so petty, when he has got away with so much more. As the Telegraph’s correspondent at European Union headquarters in Brussels, he stoked rampant English nationalism with outraged (but false) stories of EU regulations that, for example, required bananas sold in the UK to be straight, not ‘bendy’.
Having made his name, he was mayor of London for a while (though a Conservative in a city that generally votes Labour). He became a national figure on the strength of winning the Brexit campaign to leave the EU by a hair’s breadth (52%-48%).
He got the prime ministership by undermining his predecessor, Theresa May (also a Conservative), whom he accused of trying to make a sweetheart exit deal with the EU. He then made a very similar deal himself, proclaimed it a triumph, won the 2020 election – and within a year was threatening to break the treaty he himself had signed.
Almost every day Johnson tells barefaced lies with great charm and apparent sincerity. He is famously lazy, doing actual work only at the last possible moment. He has at least seven children by three different mothers (two of whom he married). There have been many affairs and there may be more children, because he will never state exactly how many he has.
And thanks to his hesitant leadership, the United Kingdom has had one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in Europe. For all this, he received the unstinting adulation of around half the English population. (Much less so in Scotland and Wales.) Yet he is now brought down by a few wine-and-cheese parties. It hardly seems fair.
After all the things Johnson has got away with, why would this minor affront to public opinion bring him down? I think my neighbour Linda in Camden Town, the inner London district we live in, could explain why. Her mother Eileen, who used to babysit for our younger daughter, died in the early days of the pandemic.
Eileen was living in a care home by 2020. She was one of the many victims of a government decision to discharge hospital patients into the care homes without testing them for Covid to make more space for new pandemic cases in the hospitals. The policy carried the virus into the care homes and killed tens of thousands.
Linda had to say goodbye to her mother on an I-Phone, and there was no real funeral. The hearse came into our street and the neighbours came out of their houses, masked and socially distanced, to say goodbye to Eileen. Two singers and a fiddler played her favourite Irish songs to see her off.
Nobody hugged, nobody went back to Linda’s flat afterwards. It was all anybody could do in that dreadful time. And people weren’t particularly angry at Johnson at the time: he was flailing around uselessly, but nobody else was getting it right either.
The anger has come now, when there is a drip-feed of stories about staff parties in Number 10 on a semi-weekly basis for birthdays, for people who were leaving, for Christmas. They even had a wine fridge and a suitcase specially fitted out so that the bottles didn’t clink when they brought them in past the police who guard the prime minister’s house.
So Johnson is now toast. The end could come when Sue Gray’s report is published this week. It could come after the police inquiry ends (although the offences only attract fines, not criminal penalties). It could be as late as May, when the Conservatives are heading for a drubbing in local council elections all over the country.
Unless Johnson resigns first, it will come at the hands of his own Conservative party, which has a well-honed technique for removing failed party leaders and is not obliged to hold an election after choosing a new one. (Conservative members of parliament are worried about their seats, and don’t want to face a new election now.)
But one way or another, he’s leaving No. 10.