Boris’s Empire Strikes Back

Can Britain’s embattled prime minister hang on?

Photo: Amer Ghazzal/Shutterstock
Photo: Amer Ghazzal/Shutterstock

Teflon Johnson.” “Houdini.” “The greased albino piglet.” The unique ability of Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson to survive career-ending controversies with his reputation intact has earned him a variety of nicknames, not all flattering. But since the resignation of his bullish strategic adviser, Dominic Cummings, in November 2020, the prime minister has obtained a new moniker with a different meaning: “the shopping trolley.”

On Twitter, Cummings — the maverick architect of both the Brexit campaign in 2016 and Johnson’s resounding election win in 2019 — will often simply use a shopping-cart emoji to refer to the prime minister. On Substack, Cummings’s newly favored platform, the mocking proceeds at greater length. In a post on January 7, which ran to over 5,000 words, Cummings raised new allegations against Johnson — identifying yet another illicit drinks party held at Johnson’s Downing Street residence in May 2020 while the rest of the nation was in lockdown — without ever naming him. Instead, “the trolley” appeared 18 times.

According to Cummings, the nickname is common among Johnson’s colleagues. Its significance lies in Johnson’s chaotic momentum, which can see him swing wildly from one side to the opposite, untethered to any vision of society or political principle. This waywardness has long been Johnson’s strength: He drifts with the times, never straying too far from the center of attention, carrying whatever cause leads the day — his wheels greased by a born-to-rule bonhomie.

For a long while Johnson seemed to be gliding down the aisles plucking policies from every shelf — delivering Brexit, outflanking Labour on raising taxes for welfare, pushing for climate action, railing against the perils of “uncontrolled immigration” — with all his supporters satisfied. Not even a catastrophically mishandled pandemic — in which Johnson led Britain to one of the worst economic recessions and highest death rates in the world, with over 175,000 lives lost — threatened his standing. A successful rollout of the vaccine saw him recast this debacle as a triumph. “It all seems to be worryingly hitch-free,” Johnson mused at the Conservative Party conference in October. “We will need to concoct some sort of diversion or row.”

He got his wish. Today, over two years after Johnson’s election, disillusionment with the prime minister is everywhere. The exposure of Johnson and his team’s parties during lockdown, flouting the very rules they imposed, has angered his party, the public, and the loyalist press like never before. The bundle of revelations now known as “Partygate” could be terminal for Johnson. The details — gatherings of 40 people, “wine time Fridays,” suitcases used to sneak booze into the building — jar with memories of a time when socializing was forbidden, people couldn’t visit dying relatives in hospital, and mothers gave birth in isolation. The Conservatives have fallen further behind Labour in the polls than at any point since 2013. Johnson’s own popularity has plummeted to its lowest-ever level. On December 16, the Conservatives fought a by-election in North Shropshire — a seat in in the West Midlands region of England that the Tories have held almost continuously since 1832 — and lost.

Can Johnson survive? The question has become such a clichéd feature of his scandal-strewn career that it can seem as much a part of him as his bumbling-fool persona. In this role, Britain’s beloved controversialist only makes careless mistakes, not calculating or contemptuous ones, and so they can always be forgiven in the end. Johnson is now trying the same trick again. He has apologized for attending the party recently identified by Cummings, but insists that he “believed implicitly that it was a work event.” Nevermind that work events were also outlawed back then, and that the event was billed as “bring your own booze!

Johnson’s fate is now out of his hands. The Tory ranks are deliberating about whether Johnson is still of use — either as a winner who’ll bounce back or a condemned figure who can take more flack before he’s axed — or whether, with local elections in May, they are better off without him now. The dilemma represents a dramatic change in fortunes for a leader who, until only a few months ago, was widely regarded as invincible, set for a decade in power. But Johnson knows a great escape is still possible: a whole vision of Britain is contained within “Boris,” a nation naturally deserving of power and prestige that suffers only from a crisis of self-belief. Many aren’t ready to abandon its comforting illusions yet.

Before his horizons narrowed to mere survival, Johnson’s prime ministership was supposed to transform the British state. The Conservatives in 2019 had earned their largest majority in 30 years and, after a decade in power, they now sought a more total dominance. The plans ranged from centralizing power in No. 10 after leaving the European Union to addressing the nation’s ever-widening regional inequalities, all while injecting some Silicon Valley–style zeal into the archaic walls of Westminster.

One doomed proposal proved particularly consequential, and it is possible to capture Johnson’s downfall through it: a plan for daily televised press briefings. In the early months of the pandemic, the public had become accustomed to live news conferences led by Johnson. Despite the government’s woeful mishandling of the virus itself, Johnson’s team deemed the briefings a success. They decided, in the summer of 2020, to make them a permanent feature.

The press excitedly drum-rolled these “White House–style” events, while at least one Conservative MP dismissed the notion as “too American.” That, in a way, was the point: It signaled Johnson’s presidential ambitions, a desire to be responsible not to Parliament but to the nation at large, accompanied by a brazen belief that the news agenda could be more tightly controlled. A supine national press, which overwhelmingly tilts in the Tories’ favor, and the prime minister’s own media fluency as a veteran journalist and editor only made the prospect more enticing.

In October 2020, the government recruited Allegra Stratton, a well-connected former journalist and Tory aide, to lead the briefings. Stratton is friends with Johnson’s wife, Carrie, while her husband, James Forsyth, is the political editor of the Spectator and a prominent columnist for the London Times. She was a “wonder woman,” in the words of a Times profile, and a natural addition to the vast political-media network that had grown around Johnson. Michael Gove, his most trusted minister, is a former leader writer at the Times (and was, until 2021, married to Sarah Vine, star columnist at the Daily Mail); Rishi Sunak, his chancellor and now leadership rival, was the best man at Stratton and Forsyth’s wedding; even Cummings, who positions himself as a renegade outsider and claims Johnson is “one thousand times far too obsessed with the media,” is yet another member of the “Spectocracy”: a former online editor at the magazine, married to its commissioning editor, Mary Wakefield.

In March 2021, after months of delay, photos of the new $3.5 million press studio, adorned with four large union-jack flags, leaked to the public. But with the room ready for action, the government suddenly dropped the plan: It would merely give “oxygen” to unwanted stories, a government source said. Johnson quietly moved Stratton to a new post, as his spokeswoman on climate-change policy, and repurposed the room for more general use. In October, Johnson and his team hosted a viewing there of the new James Bond, No Time to Die.

The abandoned idea for televised briefings proved uniquely revealing and costly to Johnson. For one thing, it captured the fundamental tension — and fragility — at his heart: He is, it seems, caught between a desire for more attention and an aversion to more scrutiny. And it inadvertently sparked a sequence of events that inflamed rivalries within Johnson’s team and blew the Partygate scandal wide open.

Cummings was perturbed by Stratton’s appointment. The reason was who he thought had picked her: Johnson’s wife, Carrie. It is unprecedented for a prime minister’s partner to attract as much attention as Carrie, 24 years Johnson’s junior. While the reports sometimes play into Lady Macbeth–type tropes — with nicknames like “Carrie Antoinette” and “Queen Carrie” — there is no hiding her political ambition. Before meeting Johnson, she worked as a Conservative special adviser and, in 2018, at 29, became the party’s youngest-ever head of communications. Her previous partner was the prominent journalist Harry Cole, now the Sun’s political editor.

The various sides of the ensuing soap opera, which descended into “Team Dom” and “Team Carrie,” are largely beside the point. What matters is that Cummings says his departure was sparked largely by Stratton’s appointment and Carrie’s influence — and so Johnson’s most fervent adversary was formed. Cummings has been attacking the “trolley” ever since, sharing old WhatsApp conversations, briefing the press anonymously, and delivering increasingly idiosyncratic commentary on Twitter. “Argh poor MEEEEEEE CRASH [trolley emoji],” Cummings tweeted, as Partygate began to unfold.

Yet the legacy of the nonexistent press briefings would be even more pointed, fueling the current furor around illicit parties. On December 7, as the government denied reports that Johnson’s team had hosted a lockdown-busting Christmas party the previous year, leaked footage showed a briefing rehearsal in the soon-to-be-abandoned studio on December 22, 2020, three days after the alleged party. In the video, one of Johnson’s advisers, playing the role of journalist, asks Stratton: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night. Do you recognize those reports?” Stratton giggles and offers several mock responses: “I went home early,” she jokes. “This fictional party was a business meeting, and it was not socially distanced.”

The leaked recording proved a tipping point in Partygate. Johnson, his colleagues, and their friends in the press could no longer refute the allegations — which began in the Daily Mirror, Britain’s only left-wing tabloid, on November 30 — as politically motivated. Stratton took the hit and delivered a tearful resignation speech outside her home in London. “I will regret those remarks for the rest of my days,” she said. Johnson sought to distance himself from the party, maintaining that he wasn’t there and hadn’t heard anything about it. “I was furious to see that clip,” he told Parliament on December 8.

On January 7, Cummings launched the new party allegation via his Substack, about the gathering in the Downing Street garden in May 2020. A few days later, the incriminating “BYOB” invitation email, sent from Johnson’s private secretary to around 100 staff, leaked to the press. Johnson’s attendance was confirmed, and he offered his awkward, evasive apology that he thought it was a work event. He added, “I should have recognized that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way.”

It’s easy to wonder why, amid the sprawling trail of betrayal and destruction that Johnson has left behind him over three decades, illicit drinks parties during a pandemic have been so damaging. Over the past two years alone, Johnson’s repeated reluctance to lock down has, by one estimate, led to 40,000 avoidable deaths; he’s assigned COVID contracts worth billions of dollars to Tory party donors and friends without oversight; and he’s been shown to have pushed the business interests of a lover while mayor of London. None of these facts have achieved anywhere near the same level of attention.

But large parts of the press and public have seemed ready to forgive Johnson’s handling of the pandemic: It was an unprecedented situation, runs the popular line, and Boris did his best. Partygate makes this line impossible. While Johnson’s other misdemeanours are often cast as him mocking the Establishment — breaking rules that the public doesn’t believe in anyway — the flouting of lockdown only makes a mockery of the public, who often took pride in abiding by the pandemic’s call to duty.

But even when faced with a difficult scandal to spin, the dynamics of press scrutiny have demonstrated at least one source of Johnson’s staying power: his entanglement with the media. The combination of Johnson’s past career in journalism, spanning the Times, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph, and his passionate conversion to the Brexit cause, cherished by the right-wing press, mean an unusual depth of devotion. “No prime minister has ever received the drooling adulation that Johnson enjoys from the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun, and the Express,” Ferdinand Mount, the former head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit, wrote in July 2020.

The Sun’s response to Partygate was particularly telling. Murdoch’s influential tabloid usually delights in elite hypocrisy, especially regarding the lockdown rules it opposed. And yet it was the last popular newspaper to put the party allegations on its front page. The identity of its new deputy editor-in-chief, James Slack, might explain why: Slack was Johnson’s spokesperson and director of communications before joining the Sun in April 2021. On January 14, the Daily Telegraph — which is sometimes dubbed the Daily Boris for its devotion to its former star columnist — revealed another illicit drinks gathering at Downing Street (without Johnson in attendance): Slack’s leaving party on April 20, 2021 — the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, where the queen was forced to sit alone thanks to the pandemic. Royalists on the right were unimpressed.

The Telegraph’s rare foray into investigative journalism was not part of a wider media shift, however. The following day, a press fightback to save Johnson was clearly taking shape. The Daily Mail, where Slack worked before joining the Conservatives in 2017, published a front page alleging that the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, also broke lockdown rules: “Starmer the Covid Party Hypocrite.” Two days later, it ran another front page on the same story: “Starmer Must Say Sorry.” The scoop, involving a photo of Starmer apparently having a beer at a work meeting in May 2020, was in fact an eight-month-old story published by the Sun. That didn’t stop the Sun also republishing it as a new revelation. The Mail, meanwhile, published a story alleging that the commotion around Johnson was simply “Remainer Revenge” — a reference to those who voted to stay inside the European Union — and part of a “long running propaganda war against the prime minister.” The “remainer plot” conspiracy was echoed in the Telegraph and Spectator.

The Brexit referendum is at the heart of the prime minister’s devout press backing. For much of the right-wing media, Britain’s membership in the European Union had long represented many bugbears rolled into one: more regulation of the private sector, more immigration, and, perhaps most importantly, a legislative power unbeholden to their influence. As an infamous (and potentially apocryphal) quote from Murdoch has it: “When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say. When I go to Brussels, they take no notice.”

Though only signing on as a Brexiteer at the last minute, Johnson has an intuitive grasp of the press’s aims and anxieties. Back in the 1990s, he’d worked as the Daily Telegraph’s Europe correspondent in Brussels, filing wild, fictitious stories about the E.U. that became the blueprint for Euroskeptic reporting: the “bureaucrats in Brussels” wanted to ban bendy bananas, enforce the sale of smaller condoms, outlaw British sausages, and so on. All these invented claims suggested, with varying degrees of explicitness, an emasculated nation. Johnson then presented himself as the balm, brimming with optimism and bravado.

On this basis, Johnson finally became prime minister three years after the referendum result in 2016. By then, the quest to leave the EU had descended into boring bureaucratic debate, weighed down by a growing awareness that, whatever Brexit might mean, Britain would be worse off than before. Johnson swooped in to lift the nation’s spirits, vowing “to get this country off the hamster wheel of doom” and “bring us together.” The tabloids were immediately emboldened: They had one of their own in Downing Street. “NOW BRING US SUNSHINE,” the front page of the Daily Mail implored. The Sun showed a yellow ball with Johnson’s face inside, surrounded by rays of light, beaming down from the sky: “JOHNSUN: New PM promises a ‘golden age.’”

On January 31, 2020, however, the day Britain formally departed the E.U., it quietly recorded its first two cases of COVID-19. The pandemic’s social and economic impact overshadowed any of Brexit’s deleterious effects. But two years later, as the pandemic recedes and Brexit endures, that is changing: Amid a harshening cost-of-living crisis — a sudden confluence of higher taxes, rising bills, a spike in inflation, and flatlined wages — the false promises of post-Brexit prosperity are being felt. About two-thirds of people who voted for Brexit now think it has gone badly or worse than expected, while fewer than half support Johnson’s prime ministership.

And yet, propelled by their own inexorable momentum, Brexit and Johnson seem unstoppable no matter how much damage they do. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a cause more cynically suited to Johnson’s strengths than Brexit: two phenomena that veil elite interests in the lure of patriotic adventure, capacious enough to channel the dreams of a nation but ultimately incapable of realizing them, dooming their adherents to disappointment. At the same time, it is also hard to imagine a cause less suited to Johnson than a pandemic, with the requisite imposition of restrictions and its call to lead by example.

Contrary to the presumptuous conclusions of his opponents, the party is far from over for Johnson. Plans for a relaunch, dubbed “Operation Red Meat,” are already under way. The project will involve a change in personnel and two main policy initiatives: weakening the BBC — the popular state-funded broadcaster that is loathed by the tabloid press as an unfair source of competition — and deploying the military to defend Britain’s southern border from migrant boat crossings. These two causes conjure up phantom national threats and are aimed exclusively at appeasing the right-wing press and the noisiest fringes of the Conservative Party — the two bases that he must appease if he is to cling to power. The press, at least, has dutifully splashed these policy announcements on their front pages, trying their best to move the narrative on.

The enduring desire to “believe in Boris” speaks to the dreary evolution of both the Conservatives and Britain along Johnsonian lines: defined by an empty, boosterish optimism, devoid of any serious vision, disinterested in policy, and willfully blind to past and present failings — traits epitomized by Brexit and brutally exposed by the pandemic. Johnson knows that if he can only keep this vapid vision of Britain alive, buttressed by a compliant press that survives on the same fantasies, the show can carry on. Even as the wheels come off, Johnson can keep to his chaotic course.

Boris’s Empire Strikes Back