Boris Johnson is getting justifiably hammered – but will his failings make a dent in public opinion?

The sleaze row will die down eventually. Politics will move on and something else will emerge to grab our attention

James Moore
Saturday 20 November 2021 14:01
HS2: Keir Starmer says Boris Johnson has betrayed Bradford

Spend a moment in the anti-Tory Twitterverse and you’ll find something new. There is, for the first time in a terribly long time, a scintilla of optimism in the air, replacing what had been something close to despair. The sight of hope on the horizon. The sense that finally, finally, people are waking up to the failings of the man in No 10. 

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has been getting justifiably hammered, even by his own side. His party’s poll ratings are in decline. His personal ones are in free fall. The foul scent of sleaze has finally started to cling to his suits. The controversy over MPs’ lobbying, their second jobs, the attempts to rewrite the rules in their favour, just won’t die down. 

Worse still, for Johnson, is that his political skills seem to have deserted him with respect to other issues too. Scrapping the eastern branch of the high-speed rail project, for example. 

The value of that project is indeed open to debate. It’s getting built at something like the pace a high school student who knows they’ve got double maths on a Monday morning gets themselves ready. 

The second phase mightn’t open until 2040, and I’m not even sure that’s realistic given the way these projects go in Britain. A substantial chunk of the current parliament mightn’t be around to see it. 

Yet Johnson – a politician carried into No 10 by in part by the power of symbolism – seems to have missed the powerful symbolism created by his government scrapping the eastern branch, which had been planned to run up to Leeds. 

There was never much heft behind his “levelling up” plans at the best of times but this decision further exposes that gaping hole at the centre of the “project” – if it can even be called that – and leaves him open to the charge of “same old Tories, same old contempt for the north”. 

But it’s the sleaze that finally got a ball that appeared permanently stuck in a muddy winter’s playing field to start rolling. The disastrous attempt to rewrite the parliamentary rules to protect an MP, Owen Paterson, who had clearly broken them. 

What I find disturbing about all this is that the information was always there. When the would-be “world king” elbowed his way into Downing Street it was as he borrowed a muck spreader – and globs of fetid manure have duly been raining down on the country ever since. It’s all there in the register of members’ interests, in the way appointments have been handled, in the plans to trash the courts, the BBC, indeed any institution capable of saying “no” or even “hang on a bit” when the government decides to do something awful. 

The goalposts have been moved and then moved again and moved one more time. 

A cancer has been growing and metastasising in public life under our noses. 

Here’s where it gets concerning. The sleaze row will die down eventually. They always do. Politics will move on. Something else will emerge to grab attention. People will look away. 

When they do, this stuff will return. Maybe with a bit more caution than before. Johnson has a habit of pushing it too far before performing a volte face.

So while there may be grounds to hope that Johnson’s many manifest failings are starting to get through to the public, I’m not yet ready to say I’m convinced. Not yet. 

It’s possible that inflation and a bad economy will save us anyway. But those who’ve been pounding away at the disease of sleaze still have work to do. That work has never been more important. 

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