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Despite a Brexit deal with the EU, Boris Johnson’s popularity as UK leader has plunged as COVID-19 wreaks havoc, with his foibles on display.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson departs 10 Downing Street for parliament in London, 30 December 2020. (EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has wanted to be “king of the world” since he was a small child. But after a turbulent 2020, the adage “be careful what you wish for” may have crossed the mind even of someone so famed for his ambition.

Many of his erstwhile supporters may be thinking the same thing.

Despite clinching a trade deal with the European Union at the last possible moment on Christmas Eve, and in spite of Britain’s achievement in starting mass vaccination against COVID-19 faster than other countries, Johnson’s future is clouded in doubt.

A little over a year ago, he was hailed as a conquering hero by his Conservative Party after winning the biggest election victory since their hero Margaret Thatcher in 1987. In characteristic language, he called the 80-seat majority a “stonking mandate.”

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, destroying Johnson’s dreams almost as comprehensively as those of his ally and fellow performative populist, U.S. President Donald Trump. As the months passed, Johnson has looked more and more gloomy and harassed.

Why, despite a Brexit deal, has Johnson’s popularity plunged?

Johnson’s popularity has plunged vertiginously. In April, when he nearly died of COVID-19, he had ratings of close to 70%. A poll last weekend said that if an election were held now, his party would see its majority wiped out and he would lose his own seat.

Significant sections of the party seem to view Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, or “Boris” as he is universally known, with deep concern. The former journalist may be under threat if local elections in May go badly.

He probably expected his popularity to be boosted by the EU deal, avoiding what would have been an economically catastrophic “hard” British departure from the bloc after 47 years of membership.

But any euphoria over that qualified achievement is likely to have mostly evaporated after Johnson was forced reluctantly to impose a third national lockdown against COVID-19 on January 5, something he desperately wanted to avoid, after a highly infectious variant of the disease sent cases to frightening new highs.

Even the Brexit deal is controversial. The official Office of Budget Responsibility suggests the exit from the EU will cause a long-term loss of output of 4%, apart from the immediate impact of COVID-19, which has hit Britain worse than most industrialised nations, causing the deepest recession for 300 years.

Johnson’s handling of COVID-19 has dismayed supporters.

But it is Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, marked by an astonishing rash of U-turns, mistakes, indecision and cronyism, that has most dismayed his erstwhile supporters, both within the party and the general population.

The powerful voices of Conservative newspapers, major contributors to the former adulation of Johnson, have harshly attacked his performance and procrastination.

If Johnson is sacked by his party this year, it will be a deep humiliation for a man whose ambition was always to be Britain’s leader, like his hero, Winston Churchill. His family says he was only four years old when he said he wanted to be world king.

Yet intrinsic to Johnson’s failures is his own flamboyant personality as one of the most extraordinary figures to have reached the pinnacle of British politics.

His many critics say that if Johnson was the ideal figure to lead a populist campaign against Brexit, he was the worst person to be at the helm during a national emergency, especially one in which the enemy is an invisible virus and not another politician vulnerable to his freewheeling wit and mockery.

UK leader’s bumbling persona

His engaging persona as a dilapidated, bumbling Bertie Wooster-like figure with a mop of unkempt blonde hair, which he carefully ruffles before public appearances, helped him twice become London mayor, then win both the 2016 referendum to take Britain out of the EU and an historic majority in last December’s election.

Party members were ready to turn a blind eye to his scandalous private life and license with the truth because of his popularity as a charming, self-mocking campaigner who even won over working-class voters despite his elite background.

But his inappropriate jokes, weakness for hyperbole, eccentric upper-class speech and distaste both for unpopular decisions and curbing public freedoms have made him look more and more out of place during an existential crisis.

Those who know him, including one of his former mistresses, say he hates telling people things they don’t want to hear, which causes him to dodge difficult decisions. He has been fired twice for lying, once from his first journalistic job and once for refusing to tell his party leader the truth about a love affair.

Some senior scientists say his delay in imposing Britain’s first lockdown in March, and then his early lifting of restrictions and subsequent reluctance to impose draconian measures, contributed to thousands of deaths. The UK has suffered one of the worst global death rates.

Optimistic predictions

Johnson seems to have an uncontrollable tendency to make optimistic predictions that come back to haunt him, often within days or hours. He is widely criticised for over-promising and under-delivering, the opposite of what a politician should do.

Last Sunday, he said young children should go back to school after the Christmas holiday in most areas. On Monday evening, after children mixed for one day, he closed down all schools as part of the lockdown.

On December 16, he taunted opposition leader Keir Starmer for demanding tougher Christmas rules, saying they would be inhuman. Four days later he announced major new restrictions in a wide swathe of southern England.

As case and death rates hit frightening new peaks this week with more than a thousand people dying in 24 hours, Starmer accused Johnson of consistently acting too late.

Critics say Johnson hates detail and needs strong ministers. But he appointed a bumbling cabinet because of their loyalty to him and to Brexit, resulting in a series of bungles, especially by hapless Education Minister Gavin Williamson. He has refused to fire ministers for incompetence or alleged corruption.

Six top civil servants have departed under Johnson, but he ignored a huge clamour to remove his controversial former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who caused outrage by brazenly breaching the first COVID-19 lockdown last March. The Cummings case is widely held to have undermined public trust in the government.

Cummings was eventually forced out in November after open warfare between factions in the prime minister’s office, including Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds. Cummings was alleged to have used insulting nicknames for Symonds.

Corruption allegations

A rule breaker since childhood, Johnson is accused of encouraging a “chumocracy” that has hugely profited from medical equipment contracts during the epidemic, without proper oversight. The New York Times reported last month that half the $22 billion of deals was awarded to firms with connections to the Conservative Party or to those without appropriate expertise or with dubious records.

Johnson has been mocked for describing England’s $30-billion test-and-trace system with typical hyperbole — “world-beating.” Led by a Conservative baroness without expert background, it has consistently failed to deliver on its targets.

Johnson’s chances of reviving his premiership depend on rapidly rolling out vaccines and then lifting restrictions. But he has again risked over-promising, saying on Monday that restrictions could begin to be lifted by mid-February if all went well. The next day, the government was already rolling back on this ambitious target.

Three questions to consider:

  1. How would you explain Boris Johnson’s unpopularity?
  2. Why do critics say his personality is ill-suited to fighting COVID-19?
  3. Why have some UK contracts for medical equipment been controversial?
Alistair Lyon author news decoder-150x150

Barry Moody worked for 12 years in Italy in various assignments during a career as one of Reuters most experienced foreign correspondents and editors, and he now has a home there. Most recently he ran Reuters’s editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the euro zone debt crisis. He was Africa Editor for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. His other postings included Asia, Australasia and the United States.

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