The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boris Johnson’s nightmare before Christmas


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Even by Boris Johnson’s own standards, he’s had quite the week. The British prime minister began it comparatively carefree, looking forward to celebrating Christmas after the holiday was lost to the pandemic last year and perhaps spending some quality time with his much-speculated-about children.

He finished the week more embattled than he’d ever been, with members of his own party joining a furor over a murky Afghanistan withdrawal that allegedly favored pets over people, a lockdown-breaking 10 Downing Street Christmas party that he denied knowing about despite it allegedly taking place in his own house and new “Plan B” restrictions that could curtail Christmas celebrations once again.

Oh, and he’s also now apparently the father of at least seven children.

For a rule-breaking politician who once said his “policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it,” it may be just desserts. Johnson has ruled with little real opposition since 2019, when his Conservatives dominated the hollowed-out and infighting Labour Party and won a working majority of 87 seats in Parliament.

He may be in real trouble this time: Two separate polls found a majority of the country thought Johnson should resign as prime minister, while his approval rating sank to a record low of 29 percent, according to YouGov. British media has been full of reports of his own party threatening a no-confidence vote if he doesn’t get his act together.

Johnson’s problems may have swung into focus this week, but they were there well before. During a United Nations climate change conference last month, his hopes for international glory were dashed as he was forced to answer questions about “sleaze” after defending a colleague who had accepted payments from two companies he promoted while serving as a lawmaker. The pressure soon showed: A rambling, apparently unrehearsed speech to business leaders later on that saw him sing the praises of Peppa Pig prompted one interviewer to ask: “Is everything okay?”

But this week has been something else.

On Monday, Johnson was pictured dressed up in a police officer’s uniform to announce a new plan to tackle drug crime. As The Post’s Jennifer Hassan and William Booth wrote, however, that message was undercut as the speaker of the House of Commons had said the evening before would call the police to investigate reports that cocaine use was “rife” in the British Parliament, with bathrooms near Johnson’s office among the areas of interest.

On Tuesday, Johnson was forced to deny reports put forward by a whistleblower that suggested he had authorized government assistance for an airlift of nearly 200 dogs and cats from Afghanistan during the chaotic withdrawal from the country in August, despite the fact that tens of thousands of Afghans and their families who may have been eligible for evacuation were left behind.

Johnson called the idea that he had intervened to prioritize pets over people “complete nonsense.” But Chris Byrant, a member of Parliament for Labour, produced a letter from a top aide that appeared to show he had authorized the animal airlift.

“The prime minister’s fingers are all over this, aren’t they? And you’re just trying — I’m hesitant to use the words ‘cover up’ — but that’s what it feels like,” Bryant said.

On Wednesday, things somehow got worse. Reports had been swirling that staff at Johnson’s office and residence of 10 Downing Street held an off-limits Christmas party last year.

Such a gathering would have been in violation of lockdown rules, and Johnson denied it took place. But this week, a leaked video emerged from four days after the alleged event that showed a “mock news conference staged by a communications aide to Johnson,” in which an aide made a joking reference to an apparent party.

The aide offered a tearful resignation Wednesday. Johnson, uncharacteristically, apologized. “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing Number 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures, and I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules because I was also furious to see that clip,” he told the House of Commons.

The same day, Johnson announced that even though his government had lifted all pandemic restrictions in England on July 5 (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales set their own restrictions), new restrictions would return in the face of rising covid-19 cases and the rapid spread of the omicron variant. This “Plan B” may include some form of vaccine passports, despite serious opposition from within Johnson’s party.

It was an embarrassing turnaround for Johnson, who had portrayed the midsummer move as a shift away from “government legal diktat” while the press had called it “Freedom Day.” But most in Britain couldn’t help but note the timing, dubbing it a “dead cat” to distract from Johnson’s political problems.

That suspicion is Johnson’s biggest problem. He can hardly be blamed for the spread of a new variant in Britain, and he is not the only world leader who may have turned a blind eye to pandemic rule-breaking — as my colleague Sammy Westfall writes, there’s been more than a few recently, including a clubbing Finnish prime minister.

Britain’s chaotic withdrawal from Kabul may dispel Johnson’s bravado about “Global Britain” and its place on the world stage, but the decision to leave Afghanistan was made in Washington. The problem, as many British observers have noted, is the common thread: persistent allegations of arrogance and untruthfulness.

“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,” Robert Shrimsley wrote in the Financial Times.

The Economist noted that even those who viewed the rule-breaking Johnson as a necessary corrective to a moribund political culture must be looking at the lack of results and wondering. “The government has bashed and battered institutions, but not remade or reformed them,” the paper writes, adding that the signature issue that took Johnson to power — Brexit — has become “a frozen conflict.”

Johnson still has a Teflon-like ability to survive these sort of scrapes, however. “He lies effortlessly, without any apparent cognitive dissonance or regard for plausibility, and with little effect on his credibility or popularity,” Arianne Shahvisi wrote for the London Review of Books.

That luck may not be about to run out, but at least this week will. On Thursday, Johnson got a rare bit of good news as his wife, Carrie Johnson, gave birth to a baby girl, their second child. But at virtually the same time, he got some other news: Britain’s Electoral Commission fined his Conservative Party $23,000 after an inquiry found he had lied about the funding for a Carrie-directed renovation of their Downing Street apartment.

Roll on next week?

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