Shortcuts / 09 June 2022

Why Boris Johnson’s in trouble

UK PM Boris Johnson is a colourful character whose career has ranged from journalist to politician, to world leader. He’s been a significant figure in the UK during Brexit and has been leader throughout the COVID pandemic, which hasn’t been without scandal. Having just survived a challenge to his leadership, we take a look at his life, his career, and why ‘Partygate’ has got him into a bit of hot water.

Alright, gimme the basics.
Let’s start with his rather grand name – Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson… His parents were young when they had him in 1964 – by modern standards, anyway – but they were well to do. His father was 23yo and his mum 22yo and they were Brits living in New York. That’s Stanley Johnson, who was studying economics at Columbia University and Charlotte Fawcett, an artist.

So Johnson grew up in the States?
No – the family had a number of moves back to the UK and away again. And in the years that followed, 3 more children were born – Rachel, Leo and Joseph.

What was Johnson like as a kid?
He was deaf until he was 8yo and there were several operations to fix his issues. As he got older, he became a serious student and he loved rugby. And it’s at the prestigious boys’ school Eton where it’s said that he cultivated his famous “eccentric English persona”.

Eton’s pretty posh, right?
Yep, and Johnson found himself a crowd of interesting characters… His friends were from some of the wealthiest and most notable families in the country – one of his best friends was Charles Spencer, now known as Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother.

Did he go on to uni?
You betcha, but first he had a gap year in Australia and taught English and Latin at Timbertop, which is the Outward Bound-inspired campus of Geelong Grammar set in the Victorian High Country. It kick-started his ongoing affection for Oz.

And then uni? 
He studied Classics at Oxford, where he fell in with the mob that became big figures in business and the Conservative Party – including former PM David Cameron.

What did he get up to in his early career?
He started out as a journalist and columnist. But he got off to a rocky start when he was fired from The Times after making up a quote in a story. But he found a home at the Daily Telegraph – the London one, not the Sydney paper…

What did he do there?
It was the 1990s when he honed his instincts as a Euro-sceptic during his time with the newspaper’s Brussels bureau reporting on the European Commission. And by 1999, he became the editor of The Spectator – a weekly magazine with a conservative slant on politics, culture, and current affairs.

That’s a good base for a political career…
You’re right, and he was elected to the House of Commons in 2001. He quit in 2008 to become the Mayor of London after winning almost 80% of the primary vote. He held that job until 2016 but shored up his political future by getting reelected to the House of Commons in 2015.

So he was a popular guy?
Yep, and he was everywhere during that period… He was on many of Britain’s quiz and news shows, he wrote regular columns and he wrote books on Winston Churchill, ancient Rome, London, politics, and parenting.

Parenting, really?
Well, Johnson has 7 children and has been married 3 times. One of those children came from an affair he had while married to his 2nd wife. He’s now married to Carrie Symonds – she’s a former Conservative Party staffer and her father is the co-founder of The Independent newspaper. They have 2 children together.

So onto Johnson’s prime ministership… How did that come about?
It was the Brexit referendum in 2016 that started the ball rolling. To refresh your memory, Brexit was the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union.

How could I forget…
Well, you’ll remember that Johnson was front and centre of things, and he was on the winning side. The result was a shock to many, and it saw PM David Cameron – Johnson’s former uni buddy – resign.

And that was just the start of it…
You’re not wrong… It brought years of political upheaval that saw Cameron’s replacement Theresa May come and go.

Wasn’t it Johnson who saw her off?
That’s right – Johnson had been the Foreign Secretary in the May Government, but he resigned over her handling of Brexit. And then he ratcheted up the pressure from the backbench forcing a confidence vote in December 2018. She won that vote, but by mid-2019, she resigned.

Hello PM Johnson?
Yes – he got support on the basis that he would keep the Brexit date of 31 October 2019. After 3 years and all the politics and uncertainty, so many wanted it to be over so the proposition that the arrangements for Brexit would be sorted within weeks was appealing. And it was a mad rush to make it all happen.

So the deadline was met?
It was, but Johnson’s huge year didn’t end there – he called an early election. Parliamentary terms are 5 years in the UK, and May held and won an election in 2017 – so it was a very early election. Johnson did that to get a clear mandate for his leadership and his Brexit plan.

Obviously, he won that election…
Obs… But he not only won – he also delivered the Conservatives their biggest win since 1987 under Margaret Thatcher.

And then came COVID?
Oh yeah… Like many nations around the world, COVID was a huge deal for the UK and in the early days, Johnson was criticised for acting too slowly to stop the spread of COVID. And as the pandemic went on, he was criticised for mishandling the government’s response.

Didn’t Johnson get quite sick himself?
He did, and it was early in the piece. It was confirmed on 27 March 2020 that he had COVID, and things got so bad at one point that officials started preparing for his death. 

But he’s been criticised for not adhering to the rules during the pandemic?
Indeed. And not just him – his office, other senior ministers, and top bureaucrats. That’s what ‘partygate’ is about.

Take me through it.
Well, let’s go back a step… In March 2020, Johnson’s former chief political adviser Dominic Cummings took a driving trip with his family while experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Johnson refused to sack him and Cummings hung on for several months.

Why is that a thing?
Commentators say it signalled that Johnson thought his government was above it all and could break the lockdown rules they’d imposed on the country. And that was right at the start of the pandemic. 

But didn’t Cumming’s go?
He left Downing Street in November 2020, and he’s since criticised the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Johnson’s leadership.

So where does Partygate come into the picture?
In early December 2021, reports emerged that social gatherings of government and Conservative Party staff at the PM’s residence and office in Downing Street had taken place in the lead up to Christmas in 2020, in breach of COVID regulations.

What did Johnson say?
He’s denied the allegations. 

Emails about “socially distanced drinks” in his garden were leaked, there were details of a gathering with cake for Johnson’s birthday in the Cabinet room – and many more. Johnson’s response: they were “work events”.

I bet that didn’t go down well…
It certainly did not… You’ll remember that during that time, people missed out on funerals, seeing friends, and caring for loved ones – so to hear that Johnson and senior government figures and advisers were getting together for drinks and birthday cake really rubbed people the wrong way.

And the police got involved?
They did – they investigated the alleged breaches and fined him, making him the first sitting PM to have breached the law.

What was the fallout of that?
Johnson lost many in his senior team, with his chief of staff, head of policy, media and others resigning for participating in the gatherings. So when senior civil servant Sue Gray released a report in late May, his position was that he’d already taken action to address the breaches.

But many disagree?
That’s right – including 40% of his Conservative Party colleagues… That’s played out this week via a confidence vote on his leadership. He won that with 211 MPs expressing confidence in his leadership, with 148 against. That’s not a huge margin because if just 32 of his fellow party members had voted against him, there would be a different result.

Could another vote be held down the line?
Well, luckily for Johnson, the party rules say they can’t hold another confidence vote for 12 months – but it doesn’t mean it’s a year of clear air for him.

What do you mean?
In the past, it’s played out that the leader wins the confidence vote, only to go on and resign in the weeks and months that follow because they accept that their leadership is terminal.

Is that going to happen to Johnson?
We’ll see. His POV is that what happened this week ends months of speculation and will allow the government to draw a line and move on.

So Johnson has a huge mountain to climb…
He sure does, and we’ll see if he’s able to hang on before the next general election, which is due in January 2025. That sounds far away, but it’ll be here sooner than you think…

Squiz recommends:

My Boris Johnson story – The Spectator

Boris Johnson, the mystery man and the Bullingdon Club: Where are they now? – ITV

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