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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Boris Johnson’s current crisis of leadership is of his own making
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Boris Johnson’s current crisis of leadership is of his own making

The UK’s Tory MPs may retain him as prime minister but this is only likely to invite more ridicule

Britain's PM Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022 (Photo: AP)Premium
Britain's PM Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022 (Photo: AP)

There he goes again, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is described by his newly- appointed communications director as “not a complete clown". But like with the Joker in the comic series Batman, there often seems a sinister aspect to Johnson’s cynical manipulation of rumours that reaches almost Trumpian sophistication of innuendo. In apparent desperation to deflect blame over his administration’s callous handling of the pandemic and his bacchanalian parties at 10 Downing Street, Johnson can be seen trying to pin false blame on opposition leader Keir Starmer for not prosecuting the case of a paedophile. Johnson was being parsimonious with truth then, as he has been in his explanations about whether he attended parties, or whether he was ‘ambushed’ by a birthday cake, as one of his parliamentarians put it.

Johnson’s dream as a schoolboy was to be the king of the world, as reported, but he had to settle for a country that was no longer an empire with a much diminished global presence or influence, a kingdom more disunited than what its name implied. Anger against him has grown because it was he who had set strict rules to fight the pandemic, and it was he and his colleagues who were found to have broken them, and then he made misleading statements in Parliament. Some of his MPs want him out. He appears to think he can brazen it out. He has survived over a week since a senior bureaucrat published a damning but redacted report and the Metropolitan Police instituted its own inquiry to investigate if laws were broken. A week is a long time in politics, Harold Wilson, a former occupant at Downing Street had said; Johnson is counting on that.

If past form is any indicator, he just may be right. Here is a former journalist who became popular by marketing his cultivated disorderly charm in a topical news-themed quiz-cum-comedy show, Have I Got News For You; who was sacked as a correspondent for making up ‘facts’; who was sacked again as a front-bencher for allegedly lying to his party leader; who insulted all and sundry, from a city to the US president and African diplomats, and treated it lightly; and whose actions suggest he weighed the decision of whether Britain should stay in or leave the EU with only one criterion in mind—how that might help his career.

With exceptional tolerance, despite knowing Johnson’s past, the British public voted for him, handing his party a remarkable majority. If he survives, it is not because the public continues to like him, but because his own Tory party’s parliamentarians can’t agree on who should lead them next.

When the pandemic spread across the world, the UK was in a precarious position. Years of under-investment in its National Health Service showed signs of strain. Doctors and nurses knew that they’d have to make heart-wrenching decisions about who should get the bed at an intensive care unit and who must be denied. Some of the UK’s early bureaucratic decisions—lockdown, weirdly complicated rules about who could meet whom, when and for how long, and who should be vaccinated first and who must wait—were agonizing. But the nation that had endured the Blitz obeyed: ‘mustn’t grumble’ is like the nation’s motto; keep calm and carry on, as the people are constantly urged.

The covid death toll mounted. Grandchildren bid tearful farewells on their tablets to their grandparents who they could not visit in hospitals; weddings got postponed and people could not attend the funerals of their loved ones. The poignant image of Queen Elizabeth II sitting alone, keeping vigil by the casket carrying the body of her husband of more than seven decades, Prince Philip, touched the nation’s conscience.

But while the queen mourned her husband, Johnson and his colleagues were at a farewell event—a work event, mind you—strictly official, for a departing colleague. Celebrations became the norm. There were more than a dozen such instances, and liquor flowed liberally. If this is how senior civil servants and politicians in Britain work, it is no wonder they lost the empire and messed up Brexit. The callous attitude showed shamelessness—the country mourned quietly as privileged elite celebrated, contemptuous of the compliant citizenry, as if mocking their misery.

If Johnson survives, it is not because Britain is indulgent, but because the decision rests with Conservative MPs. The party’s parliamentarians ruthlessly dumped Margaret Thatcher in the past and have back-stabbed rivals (think of Johnson and Michael Gove). But with fewer constituents complaining about prime ministerial shenanigans and lack of clarity over who should replace Johnson, Tory parliamentarians just might think that kicking the ball further in the grass may do for now.

There is Rishi Sunak, who’d be the first prime minister from an ethnic minority if MPs elect him, but so far he has been loyal to Johnson. Liz Truss may also be interested, but she doesn’t have broad support. Priti Patel’s chances are low. Now-backbencher Jeremy Hunt was Johnson’s rival the last time, but he has lost the race once, although he is what Britons would call “a safe pair of hands". The majority of 359 Tory MPs may believe that this too shall pass, but as they cling to the coat-tails of a disgraced leader, they only invite ridicule.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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Published: 09 Feb 2022, 11:08 PM IST
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