How do you even begin to explain Boris Johnson’s problems to a foreign audience?
The controversial British prime minister has survived so many scandals that his predecessor David Cameron once nicknamed him “the albino greased piglet,” such was his ability to extricate himself from uncomfortable situations.
Is he really now at risk of being brought down by cake and a little — well, a lot — of wine?
That’s the puzzle London-based foreign correspondents are facing as they struggle to explain the wrath of the great British public to their respective audiences.
“I was talking to my editor and he was telling me: ‘So this guy was elected two years ago, everybody knew he was a liar, so why is everybody so surprised that he’s been lying?’” said Deborah Bonetti, a journalist who writes for Italy’s Il Giornale newspaper and is the director of London’s Foreign Press Association.
“It’s like, the Brits are always surprised that politicians lie,” Bonetti said.
For 20 years, it looked like nothing could stop Johnson. Gaffes were shrugged off and career-ending revelations eventually became storms in teacups.
But over the past months, Partygate has turned into the greatest threat to his career so far. While the country was in lockdown — instructed by the prime minister to limit their social contacts — staff in Johnson’s No. 10 Downing Street regularly had drinks with one another at informal office parties or, at least on one occasion, in the office’s back garden.
In a recently published account, staff were recounted to have said the prime minister “Happy Birthday” while presenting him with a cake.
But while the charges are easy enough to outline, explaining the level of outrage — weeks of hysterical front pages, parliamentary sparring during prime minister’s questions, a civil service investigation, a police inquiry — is another matter.
As the stories pile up, Johnson’s approval ratings have tanked. His party has gone abseiling down the polls, and his premiership looks more fragile than ever. Even if he manages to survive the next few weeks, the consensus is clear: The British are furious, and Johnson is almost certainly a dead man walking.
“I attempted to make people understand why the Brits were feeling really let down, because they thought that he would respect the same rules that he made,” said Bonetti. “It’s looked a little bit puritanical, this kind of reaction, and I wasn’t expecting it from the Brits.”
For Rafa de Miguel, the United Kingdom correspondent for Spain’s El País newspaper, it’s not so much Johnson that’s hard to explain. It’s the drinking.
Floating the rules — even his own — doesn’t seem especially surprising coming from a prime minister whose entire persona has revolved around his often comical genius and casual disregard for conventions. But what are civil servants doing with so much wine?
“One of the things that my editors asked of me, from the very beginning of this scandal, was to try to explain what this drinking culture was that they were constantly referring to in the British media,” said de Miguel.
“And it is a little bit hard to explain when people have not lived here,” he said. I mean, “you don’t have people in the government headquarters ending the day with a bottle of wine in Spain.”
One explanation for the surprising reaction to the scandal is something else that was uniquely British: A sense of solidarity in the early days of the pandemic that was ruptured by the recent revelations.
For a country that had spent years wrestling with diverse topics — Brexit, Scottish independence — the coronavirus, however horrible, provided a moment of unity, a feeling that everyone was in the same boat.
“Especially in the beginning, it was like, ‘Alright guys, we’re just going to do this, we’re going to get on with it,’ and everyone just fell into line,” Yasmeen Serhan, a Britain-based journalist for the Atlantic said. “There wasn’t the weird partisan infighting that we saw in the US There was this sense of camaraderie that really got Britain through the pandemic.”
And so the discovery that the prime minister and his entourage spent those days on a separate, altogether jollier boat was especially jarring.
“This is a country that loves to queue,” said Serhan. “Of course, they’re going to get pissed off if their politicians are seen to be blatantly breaking rules! It was not just seen as politicking or Boris being Boris, but as a moral failing.”
Still, added Bonetti, that doesn’t explain why Brits have been so shocked that their rogue prime minister would behave in exactly the way his long-standing image would lead an outsider to believe he’d behave.
“It’s almost like they thought that he was going to be cured by being in the top office,” Bonetti said. “Why would he be? If anything, it corrupts.”