Boris Johnson on a Roll, Downwards

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

After “BoJo” Johnson hosted the G7 summit in Cornwall, where he was little more than a “tour guide” (in the words of the Labour leader Keir Starmer), BoJo joined that part of the G7 circus that moved on to Brussels for the NATO summit.

As with the G7, Joe Biden, seeking to restore alliances that had been undermined by Trump, was the centre of attention, while BoJo was again the side show.

BoJo’s visit to Brussels peaked immediately and went downhill instantly after his arrival.

BoJo was said in social media to look as though he had come to Brussels straight from sleeping on the beach in Cornwall, crashing-out on the sand by a bonfire after a beach party with super-abundant libations.

The Washington Post reported that when the G7 summit drew to its close, after-dinner participants relaxed “around bonfires on the beach as they were served hot buttered rum, toasted marshmallows and baked brie, and were serenaded with sea shanties”.

At the press conference when he arrived in Brussels, the dishevelled BoJo could barely string a sentence together. Once again comparisons were made with another Boris– the drunken Yeltsin who led Russia for a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union before resigning in 1999, when his increasingly erratic ways resulted in a subsequent electoral defeat.

The not quite unspoken aim in the western alliance is for the EU and NATO to dovetail seamlessly into each other, so that NATO (or its replacement) becomes the EU’s de facto military wing. Having exited the EU, the UK was never going to have a major say in NATO’s future development, even while remaining a member of the military alliance.

At home, BoJo wasn’t facing good news either.

The Liberal Democrats managed an astonishing victory in the leafy Buckinghamshire seat of Chesham and Amersham, taking one of the safest Tory constituencies in a byelection. The election was called after the death of the local MP who had represented the constituency since 1992 and held it in 2019 with a majority of 16,223.

The Lib Dems obtained 21,517 votes, the Conservatives 13,489 votes, the Greens 1,480 votes, and Labour a humiliating 622. The Lib Dem majority was 8,028.

The shock result is attributed to the upcoming Tory developer-friendly planning “reforms”. The Tories have been in the pockets of property developers for years, and voters in the well-off shires are renowned for being NIMBYs—a good way to destroy the “value” of your £2mn/$2.8mn house is to have a developer who donates to the Tories put up a cookie-cutter housing “development” in a field adjacent to your property. Tactical voting augmented the desertion of traditional Tory supporters.

Concerned senior Tories are now calling for BoJo to ditch his proposed planning reforms.

The former Speaker of the House of Commons and Tory MP John Bercow defected to Labour with a scathing attack on BoJo. He said the Conservatives under BoJo were “reactionary, populist, nationalistic and sometimes even xenophobic”. The government “needs to be replaced”, Bercow went on to say, adding that BoJo is “someone who has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth in a leap year”.

The Speaker is required to be politically impartial, so on his election in 2009 Bercow had to resign from the Tory Party. He had been a Tory MP for 12 years.

Bercow, who stood down as Speaker in October 2019, made procedural decisions over the Brexit process during his time as Speaker that were a constant irritant for pro-Brexit Tories. He gave unparalleled powers to backbenchers to hold ministers to account as they tried to ram Brexit decisions through parliament. He also had several clashes with the Conservatives, and in 2015 he survived an attempt by Conservative whips to oust him just before the election.

Government sources dismissed Bercow’s decision to defect to Labour as the choice of someone who has always been strongly anti-Brexit— one source said it “shows Labour is still the party of Remain”.

Dominic Cummings, BoJo’s erstwhile chief of staff, had given evidence to a parliamentary committee in which he excoriated his former boss for his handling of the Covid pandemic. During the hearings Cummings said he would produce textual evidence to back up his claims about BoJo and the Tory cabinet.

Last week Cummings released his evidence— a batch of shared photos of his WhatsApp conversations with the Prime Minister and documents from national security meetings, which confirmed his testimony before the parliamentary committee, and what the informed public has long known.

BoJo chaired cabinet meetings on key issues where he told “rambling stories and jokes”, and that “as soon as things get ‘a bit embarrassing’ [Boris Johnson] does the whole ‘let’s take it offline’ shtick before shouting ‘forward to victory’, doing a thumbs-up and pegging it out of the room before anybody can disagree”.

At the parliamentary hearings Cummings had been dismissive of BoJo, saying “Fundamentally, I regarded him as unfit for the job, and I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought were extremely bad decisions, and push other things through against his wishes”.

The WhatsApp releases showed BoJo describing his health minister, Matt Hancock, as “totally fucking hopeless” during the early days of the pandemic.

In another text message, when NHS staff were running out of vitally-needed masks and gowns, BoJo said the PPE shortages were “a disaster”, and suggested removing Hancock from oversight of PPE supply. “Wtf do we do?”, Johnson wrote. The UK still has the highest number of health-worker Covid deaths in Europe and the third highest in the world.

When asked during Prime Minister’s Questions whether Cummings’s WhatsApp messages were genuine, BoJo did not respond.

BoJo’s official spokesman said his boss would not answer to every allegation made and that BoJo’s focus is on delivering for the public. The spokesman then earned his salary (and more?) by saying BoJo had full confidence in his health secretary.

BoJo had declared 21 June to be “Freedom Day”, the presumed final stage in the lifting of all of England’s Covid lockdown restrictions. However, this has now been put back to 19 July due to the rise in cases of the Delta/India variant.

The UK’s Covid death toll stood at 128,000 as of 19 June. UK daily Covid cases reached 11,007 on 17 June– this was the highest figure since 19 February, and prompted some experts to say the UK is now experiencing its third wave of the virus.

The prime minister deemed by those who know him (and not just Dominic Cummings) to be “unfit for the job” is of course still be in charge.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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