Carelessness and contempt are at the root of every Boris Johnson crisis

They are lying to you and they are laughing at you. This is the charge the opposition is beginning to stack up against Boris Johnson’s government. The lying may be priced in by voters, but the contempt is more corrosive. With the leak of a video showing Downing Street staffers joking about a party held last December as the prime minister was ordering the nation into lockdown, his enemies must think all their Christmases have come at once.

It is always hard to calibrate the damage which a story convulsing Westminster will do in the wider country. But a useful rule is that the more personally felt the moral failure, the greater the outrage. By that measure Johnson has a serious problem given the party was held in the building which serves as both his office and his home. While ordinary people were being prosecuted and fined for such breaches, his own staff were whooping it up behind closed doors. The laughter of Downing Street staff about the breach may have been gallows humour, but the sight of it reinforces a view which says that in this government the only question which counts is “can we get away with it?”

The Prime Minister has reached for the traditional last line of defence in such circumstances by asking his cabinet secretary, Simon Case, to lead an inquiry into what happened in Johnson’s own home. Few will be impressed by this — not least since he chose not to do it a week ago when news first broke, preferring to try to bluff his way through. But it offers a new evasive answer to questions in the coming days. Johnson’s hope is that buying time will ease pressure, though he will regret being trapped by Keir Starmer into promising to pass the findings on to the police. Furthermore, there are no real scapegoats he can throw to the mob, though he will still be seeking some.

In the longer term, however, this issue is another reminder to his own MPs of the core weakness of his leadership and the reason why his government keeps falling into such holes. Carelessness and contempt have long been hallmarks of Johnson’s administration. In almost every controversy surrounding this government, from the suspension of parliament over Brexit to the doomed effort to save a colleague who was guilty of paid advocacy, the consistent theme is not only the “whatever works” justification but the belief that a problem is only a problem if you cannot tough it out.

This style hails from the collision of two attitudes. The first is Johnson’s own casual relationship with rules. Few Downing Street partygoers will have doubted Johnson’s own disdain for the Covid restrictions. The second comes from the conviction among senior figures in his administration that the institutions of Britain are broken and need a radical overhaul. The combination of these two views places a premium on unconventional moves. It turns critics into enemies and any defenders of existing institutions or processes into part of the privileged “blob” fighting for their own interests.

The combination is damaging both for the Tories and for the country since it clouds the judgment and throws off any moral compass. Add Brexit polarisation into the mix and you have a leadership too often incapable of restraining its urges. It is this which leads to the contempt for checks and balances and independent scrutiny, which are vital when a government with a large majority can do pretty much as its pleases.

Furious and increasingly despairing Tory MPs have defaulted to calling for a clear out of advisers, for a “draining of the swamp”. But the swamp in question is the prime minister himself and he is never going to change. He sets the tone for his staff and his government. Can anyone imagine such a party taking place if Theresa May were prime minister?

So the question is when enough is enough for those Tory MPs. The simple answer is when they believe the public has turned on Johnson, and while this will not bring down the government it erodes the support of swing voters. A looming by-election in North Shropshire next week will be one test.

Against this background the prime minister — who was, in the words of one cabinet colleague, resisting any new measures to slow the spread of Omicron “unless they are clearly unavoidable” — is suddenly rushing to introduce the so-called Plan B, at least part of which was rejected in cabinet on Tuesday.

Some of the measures were probably coming in the next few days anyway as the scientific advice pointed to the new variant’s rapid spread into the population. Most in the country will support the moves, which will include advice to work from home and some variation on vaccine passports, but among the significant minority who don’t, the charge will be that new rules were introduced to distract attention from a political problem.

And since some of those most opposed to new restrictions, especially vaccine passports, are Johnson’s own MPs, this will deepen the opposition of those most able to remove him, weakening his authority to take the necessary decisions on Omicron.

Far too many premature political obituaries have been written of Boris Johnson to add another one now. With his apology and promise of an inquiry, he is trying to place himself above the row. But what this and other recent errors have highlighted is what will prove his ultimate downfall. It will come when his MPs conclude his careless leadership style is jeopardising their electoral prospects. This week that day moved a meaningful step closer.


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