Why ‘Partygate’ could be the end of Boris Johnson’s political career

For decades Johnson glided through life on his charisma and connections, enjoying a reputation as a genial buffoon. But now his lies and hypocrisy are finally catching up with him.

Credit: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament (CC BY-NC 2.0)Boris Johnson addressing the opening of Parliament on October 14, 2019.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, has had a storied career. He was once a journalist who, though fired for making up quotes and even whole stories, continued to rise in the profession. He was a Member of Parliament, then Mayor of London for two terms, then went back to Parliament, where he eventually became foreign secretary, before finally getting to the prime minister’s office.

Now it seems that Johnson’s time in 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, might well be cut short, following a still unfolding scandal about boozy illegal parties during the country’s national lockdowns.

In a video recording that was leaked in December, a spokeswoman is seen giggling at a mock press briefing as she practices lying about the parties. Since then, the media has reported a tsunami of leaks about at least 16 parties having taken place in other government departments while pandemic rules were so strict that the law even forbade more than two people walking together in the park. In a matter of days, fury spread across the country.

The details were vivid. Aides at 10 Downing Street smuggled in suitcases filled with bottles of wine. There was a drunken party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, at which the Queen herself was photographed sitting masked and alone at her own husband’s funeral, as per pandemic protocol. Some of the partygoers got so inebriated one night that they broke the backyard swing set, which had been set up for Johnson’s son to play on.

Each time the media reported yet another party, people shared on social media what they had been doing on that pandemic lockdown day. At best, people sat alone in their apartments with nothing to do; at worst, they were unable to attend the funerals of loved ones because of the stringent restrictions.

The scandal has, so far, caused one member of Parliament to leave the Conservatives for the Labour party and several others to publicly call on Johnson to resign. Sue Gray, a senior and well-respected civil servant, was asked to write an official report on the illegal events.

Days before she was due to publish her report, the Metropolitan Police announced they would be conducting their own investigation into alleged breaches of lockdown rules. This means that Gray’s full report will have to wait, but a redacted version published last week hit out against “failures of leadership and judgement” in Downing Street.

Dominic Cummings, a political consultant whom Johnson hired as his senior advisor when he became prime minister in 2019, and later fired in 2020 for briefing the press against him, is widely believed to be the source of the leaks about the parties. Cummings, who was Johnson’s closest advisor during and before the election, is known for being vengeful.  This sequence of events also felt, in hindsight, a bit inevitable.

Boris Johnson has been caught lying in person and in print countless times and he has always got away with it. He has had three wives, heaven knows how many mistresses, and, allegedly, does not even know how many children he has fathered. He is untrustworthy, unserious, gaffe-prone and easily distracted; and yet, somehow, because of his charm and shamelessness, he kept falling upward.

His rise once seemed inevitable, given his class background (and the British are ever obsessed with class) and connections. The son of a politician, he spent his formative years at Eton College, Britain’s most elite private school, famously attended by both Prince William and Harry and 19 other British Prime Ministers. There, he became secretary of the debating society and editor of the school newspaper. This trajectory wasn’t surprising; as a profile from the Sunday Times once explained, “[their father] Stanley deliberately created a family atmosphere in which beating the others at running, jumping, eating the hottest mince pies, coming first at school or simply having the blondest hair entirely captured the lives of all four children.”

The Johnsons were bred to want it all. After Eton, Johnson “went up” to the University of Oxford, where he was elected president of the Oxford Union (the university’s prestigious debating club). A brief dip followed, when he was fired from an internship at the Times for making up some quotes.

Never down for long, Johnson bagged himself a job at the right-leaning Daily Telegraph instead, having met its editor while at Oxford, and took it from there. He soon became the paper’s Brussels correspondent and took to writing outlandish stories about the European Union to please its eurosceptic readers, in a bout of ham-fisted foreshadowing.

At the time, the EU was growing and important questions were being asked about what its future should be, what its members wanted and what its place should be in the world. Instead, Johnson wrote pieces on Italians wanting smaller condoms (false); about an EU spokesperson living in a castle (false); and other made up stories of that caliber.

By the end of the 1990s, Johnson started to show political ambitions. According to Jim Pickard, Chief Political Correspondent for The Financial Times, Johnson said he wanted to become a politician  because “no one puts up statues to journalists.”

It was a bold move but not a surprising one; after all, many well-connected, posh British men before him managed the move from journalism to politics, no matter how ill-suited to either job they were.

Johnson, who seems to revel in his image as a genial buffoon, once called Black people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and gay men “tank-topped bumboys.” He has said that women who wear the hijab look like “letterboxes.” And yet, his foppish charm, bumbling charisma and semi-celebrity status meant he was elected mayor of London in 2008.

During the 2012 Olympics he got stuck on a zipwire while wearing a hardhat and clutching a plastic UK flag in each hand, in an incident that many believe was a stunt because, while he looked quite silly, he did not seem the least bit flustered.

While mayor, Johnson had an affair with a woman who worked in tech and was accused of giving her access to contacts and public funds. The story only came out relatively recently, as Jennifer Arcuri, the woman in question, decided to tell her story to the media. So far, there have been no serious consequences for Johnson.

In 2016 Johnson was back in Parliament when then-Prime Minister David Cameron called a referendum on whether the country should remain in the EU. Johnson huffed and puffed and then he came out in favor of Brexit. He later admitted that he’d written two columns for that day’s Telegraph, one supporting each side, as he could not make up his mind.

He then became the most visible face for the Vote Leave campaign. Johnson rode around on a big red bus claiming that post-Brexit Britain would spend an extra 350 million pounds a year on the national health service—which never happened—and compared the EU to Adolf Hitler. Three years later, he campaigned for prime minister on a platform of “get Brexit done.”

His decision to bring in Dominic Cummings, who is such a divisive figure that David Cameron called him a “career psychopath,” as his most senior adviser could yet prove to be his undoing.

The incompatibility of their personalities led to many fights, while Cummings’s abrasive style alienated everyone around him. The real problem, however, stemmed from his repeated clashes with Carrie, Johnson’s third wife.

A former Conservative adviser herself, she wielded—and still wields—considerable power in Number 10, a fact that Cummings resented. Forced to pick between the maverick and the spouse, Johnson eventually sided with the latter, and fired Cummings in late 2020.

It was always clear that Cummings would eventually take his revenge; the only question was when and how.

Since the “partygate” revelations became the top story in the British media, Cummings has repeatedly attacked Johnson for lying about the events to Parliament. In the prime minister’s defence, lying and charming people is something he has always been good at—and, until now, has nearly always been able to get away with.

The British people seem finally to be fed up with his charismatic clown persona. Millions of law-abiding citizens were unable to see their friends and families for months on end; people died alone and people gave birth alone; and meanwhile, in the corridors of power, people danced and drank until dawn. Johnson’s profuse apologies are seen as transparently mendacious and insincere.

 

Whether Johnson will survive this scandal is still an open question, with not even the most seasoned political analysts taking bets. If the police do find evidence of criminal behavior, and if more revelations come out in the next few weeks, he might be ousted by his own party.

As of February 3, two top aides have quit, citing Johnson having been caught lying as their reason. Meanwhile, 11 Conservative Members of Parliament have called for a vote of no confidence against Johnson. If a total of 15 percent follow suit, MPs will then have to vote on whether they have confidence in their leader. If the prime minister wins the no-confidence vote, the MPs cannot challenge him again for a year; if he loses it, a leadership contest starts immediately. As of this writing, it is impossible to predict what will happen next.

Still, there are some years to go until the next election, and illegal parties during the pandemic aren’t the only problem Britain is facing. Rising inflation and skyrocketing energy bills means the country is heading for a dire cost of living crisis, and no-one seems to know how to deal with it. The Labour Party is climbing back up in the polls, slowly but surely, but these are not their problems quite yet; instead, what the U.K. needs right now is a sharp and well-functioning government.

 

Marie Le Conte

Marie Le Conte

Marie Le Conte is a French-Moroccan freelance political journalist based in London. She has worked for BuzzFeed News and the Evening Standard among others, and has written for publications including the Guardian, the Sunday Times, Prospect, VICE and i-D Magazine. She is the author of Haven't You Heard? A Guide to Westminster Gossip and Why Mischief Gets Things Done. Follow her on Twitter @youngvulgarian.

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