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LONDON — The British prime minister is once again stretching the limits of what is tolerable in public office. Call it a manifesto promise kept.
As Boris Johnson fields questions from the Metropolitan Police investigating alleged lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street, his premiership clings by a thread and his poll ratings are plummeting.
A separate inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray previously identified “failures of leadership” over these events, though Gray said she was “extremely limited” in what she could say because of the police investigation.
While Johnson waits to hear if he will face any penalty, his Conservative MPs are also in suspended animation. Outside a hard core of loyalists and committed enemies, the rest wait on the police’s verdict to see just how bad it could get before they decide if they want to try to topple him.
Since the prime minister is simply the leader of the largest party in Westminster and not directly accountable to voters, it is the 360 Tory MPs in the House of Commons who will decide, at least until the next election, if Johnson gets away with it once more.
This sorry episode might be the tightest spot Johnson has ever found himself in, but he is no stranger to such jams — or to squeezing out of them. In fact, his career to date has been a roll call of outrages followed by unlikely escapes.
Famously sacked by the Times for fabricating a quote, he nonetheless went on to a successful career as a journalist and an MP, during which time he repeatedly courted controversy with offensive comments about minority groups. After becoming a member of the shadow Cabinet under former Tory leader Michael Howard, he was again sacked for lying.
It was after this early part of his journey to notoriety that he became mayor of London, an unlikely victory that helped cement his mythic ability to defy political gravity and propel him to a position of prominence from which he could become Brexit champion, foreign secretary, leader of the party and, of course, prime minister.
While running for mayor, Johnson’s playbook of conscious tactics and fair winds which were to carry him through successive scandals began to take shape.
It’s a playbook that has given him staying power his rivals can only dream of — but may finally be stretched to breaking point as he tests the limit of what his own colleagues and the voting public can stand.
No. 10 didn’t offer a response to a request for comment by publication time.
Underestimated on all sides
When the Conservatives chose Johnson as their candidate for London mayor, it was widely dismissed as a joke. When he won, it gave rise to the enduring idea he possessed a kind of electoral dynamite nobody else in British politics could match.
In fact, Johnson was his party’s accidental nominee. He was pushed forward only after the preferred choice, former MP Nick Boles, pulled out due to illness.
Johnson’s former high school frenemy, David Cameron, who at that stage led the Tories in opposition, put his name forward in the spirit of a profile-raising, but ultimately harmless, experiment. Years later, when Johnson challenged Cameron over Brexit, the irony of this history made the fallout all the more bitter.
Johnson’s campaign got off to a typically shambolic start. One early recruit to his team remembered that just days before the announcement, his then-wife, Marina, was not fully on board with his candidacy. Worse, he was unable to answer the direct question: Why do you want to be mayor?
“He was all over the place,” the ex-adviser recalled. “I just thought: Bloody hell, this is going to be bad.” Soon afterward, Johnson had to be tricked into a trip to department store Selfridges with the promise of a media interview in order to force him to buy some new suits.
Nevertheless, Cameron’s right-hand man and chief strategist, George Osborne, pushed the party to take the risk and back Johnson. The official launch provided a glimpse of what the Tories have come to expect from Johnson — and why the narrative about his exceptionalism has proved so hard to budge.
Such events were not known for razzmatazz and aides expected about 20 people to show up. When a mob of 70 appeared, attracted by the spectacle of seeing what the bumbling bicyclist would do next, “it was carnage,” according to one of those present.
At the time, he was best known for his floppy hair and appearances on the comedy panel show “Have I Got News For You,” which built up his celebrity status, known often simply as “Boris.” This further contributed to the impression he was not like other politicians and the normal rules did not apply.
More than displaying his star power, Johnson’s 2008 win reversed a decade of Conservative decline in London and ended the unrivaled dominance enjoyed by the mayoralty’s first holder, leftwing maverick Ken Livingstone. It was a coup not only for Johnson but also buoyed his party, out of government since Tony Blair stormed to victory for Labour in 1997.
The complacency of Johnson’s opponents has been repeated many times since.
The late Tessa Jowell, a Labour MP and adviser to Livingstone, recognized even then the existence of what she called “Labour for Boris” — voters who were otherwise aligned with the left but saw Johnson as “a top bloke.” Yet Livingstone’s camp never fully admitted the threat to themselves — one aide told the academic Tony Travers at the time it was “mathematically impossible” for Johnson to beat them.
In scenes that would later be echoed on the morning after the Brexit vote, his mayoral victory left him — and everyone around him — in shock. Asked at what point they began to think might win, the ex-aide said: “I’ll be honest, there wasn’t one. I didn’t think we stood a chance.”
This moment did more than perhaps any other to fuel the Johnson myth — sure, he was chaotic, unpredictable and badly behaved but who cared? Voters loved him, and he could reach parts of the electorate no one else in his party could.
David Gauke, who served in the government of Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, previously observed: “To the extent that Conservative MPs hold off [trying to get rid of him], it’s because they continue to believe that he is ultimately a vote winner.”
Trust the team
Another weapon in Johnson’s armory has long been his preference for sitting atop an effective team. Again and again, he has hopelessly floundered before being yanked back on course by strong lieutenants.
If he was something of a joke candidate in 2008, then his recruitment of Australian pollster Lynton Crosby sharpened the entire operation. Similarly, the early part of his time as mayor was a fiasco; several deputies quit under a cloud and his chief of staff walked out in despair. The turning point was his hiring of Simon Milton, former leader of Westminster Council, and later Eddie Lister, who many years later would follow him into Downing Street.
This was not, according to several former City Hall officials, a moment of brilliance by Johnson but something urged by others around him who could see it all going south.
It did, however, prove a winning formula. The efforts of Milton, Lister, communications advisers Will Walden and Guto Harri, and policy adviser Munira Mirza, kept the Boris show on the road and turned it into an international brand.
Under their guidance, Johnson did not seek to make bold policy moves but acted as a poster boy for projects which Livingstone had set in motion, such as the Olympic Games and the so-called “Boris bikes” rental scheme. And from this comfortable vantage point, he was free to speak out against central government policy — adopting a more liberal rhetoric on touchstone Tory issues such as immigration and state spending.
This, in turn, gave him an ideological elasticity that enabled voters to project what they wanted to see onto him — and ignore parts they found distasteful.
Labour’s campaign against him in the race to be mayor, inasmuch as there was one, focused on offensive remarks he had published in his capacity as editor of the Spectator and Telegraph columnist. The same charge sheet was wheeled out, to just as little effect, when he stood for Conservative party leader in 2019.
Johnson’s detractors have puzzled endlessly why these comments never proved fatal. But for all the offense caused, such comments had already been around for so long that there was no “gotcha” moment, and no whiff of hypocrisy.
Another aspect, according to former aides, is that people — both colleagues and the wider public — could not reconcile his writing with how he came across in person.
“We were walking around somewhere like Essex and somebody shouted really loud from across the road ‘Boris, you’re a wanker!’ and he just put his arm up and went ‘all right mate, got your vote’ and carried on walking,” the mayoral ex-aide recalled. “I’ve never seen a politician who could actually take that shit in their stride. Most people would be kind of appalled, and there was something quite remarkable about that.”
Andrew Boff, a long-serving Conservative member of the London Assembly who took his seat in the same year Johnson became mayor, said: “The thing is, he does just make people feel good about themselves.”
Another former colleague who worked with him at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) echoed this: “I think at least a part of the reason he gets away with a lot of this stuff is because the Boris you see on TV is very different. He trusts his team and he is very lovely to work with.”
If these qualities — electoral cut-through, star power, team-building — allowed the Conservatives to believe Johnson was the answer to their prayers, his lack of attention to detail has proved more problematic the higher he climbed.
Boff recalled an election commitment Johnson had made not to narrow a particular road in north London, only to sign an order to do just that within a week of becoming mayor. “I don’t think it was him being deceitful, it was just that on that campaign trail, he was blown away with the idea of pleasing people,” he said. “He’s devilishly difficult to get to stick to a brief.”
He relied on his ability to master a certain subject quickly rather than doing much in the way of preparation, according to those who worked with him as mayor — an approach that often impressed people but was erratic.
He is famed for his inability to say “no” to people. On one occasion in 2008, he promised to fire a member of his team who was causing problems, only for the staffer to emerge from the meeting with a new job title and higher salary, according to an official who worked in his office at the time.
While a trusted team has in the past compensated for his tendency to bluster, the same solid power base has eluded him at Downing Street. Johnson has had three chief advisers so far as prime minister — Dominic Cummings, Dan Rosenfield and the incumbent Steve Barclay — as well as numerous other high-profile departures, never quite seeming to find the right fit.
The ex-aide summed it up: “He isn’t somebody who holds a big court, you know, like David Cameron … I’m sure he’s got friends but they’re not political allies that are really close.“
Mirza and Harri were two of the allies he might call friends and when the former quit Downing Street earlier this month, he sought out the latter. His ex-wife Marina was also acknowledged to be a big influence on him behind the scenes, but as his current wife, Carrie, has discovered this role is more difficult inside No. 10.
An aide who worked with him more recently in No. 10 said: “The terrible thing is the prime minister encourages great loyalty and you feel great affection for him. He’s an extraordinary man to work for. And then you realize that it’s very much one way.”
They drew a contrast between Johnson’s timid defense of Allegra Stratton, who resigned over Partygate, and May’s handling of public attacks on her former adviser Stephen Parkinson. This ex-aide said “it wasn’t as if [Stratton] got a lot of support,” whereas May “rode to [Parkinson’s] defense and backed him publicly.”
While his colleagues generally attest he is an amenable boss, they also highlight a tendency to assume officials would simply “get on with it” and a lack of interest in inspecting their work.
“He’s just basically like, ‘can you just go and deliver this, I don’t really give a fuck how you do it,’” said one senior Whitehall official.
“The accusation that he doesn’t absorb detail and isn’t really engaged is correct,” said another colleague from Johnson’s Foreign Office days. “He gave others enormous leeway because as foreign secretary, his mind was never really on it. His mind was on becoming the prime minister.”
Some wonder if this attitude had a role to play in the Partygate scandal. “He’s not going to be all over everything, so when things go wrong as they have done, he’ll just be thinking: ‘What the fuck?’” said the same Whitehall official.
A tainted brand
If Johnson is not fined by police over Partygate, he can likely squeak past his antagonists for a bit longer, but it is getting harder to escape their net.
The belief — in the Tory party and among voters — that he was somehow different from other politicians has served Johnson well and circumstances conspired, both as mayor and during the U.K.’s 2019 general election to lend apparent proof to the theory.
But once his misjudgments start to dent his election boosterism, as current polls suggest they are, exceptionalism won’t count for much.
“Things don’t matter,” said a former Cabinet minister, “until the day they do. All the things that have gone wrong suddenly become more important. And you can almost see that in Westminster now. It’s the dam bursting.”
While it is still possible for Johnson to hang on as prime minister — specifically if Conservative MPs conclude it remains in their interest to keep him on — many of the events of the last few months would seem to chip away at the narrative that despite his evident chaotic style, Johnson could deliver.
James Johnson, who worked in No. 10 under May before founding the polling company JL Partners, has run dozens of focus groups across the country over the past three years. In these sessions, the prime minister “was seen as the guy who might not necessarily follow the rules but would get things done.”
Now, in James Johnson’s view: “I think it’s over. Boris’ brand is severely tainted … In that way, he’s very similar to other politicians who are at the end of their tenure — the voters are giving up on him.”
But while his standing has been undoubtedly weakened by the drip-drip of scandal, nobody yet seems willing to deliver the fatal blow. At perilous points so far in Partygate, Conservative MPs have stepped back from the edge, and seem only willing to approach it in extremis.
The final irony for the consummate people-pleaser may be that he ends up pleasing no one: He remains in post, weakened, but too strong to depose, waiting for his legendary ballot box appeal to run out once and for all.