Boris Johnson has ‘never played by the rules’

As a schoolboy, Boris Johnson appeared to be convinced that the normal rules did not apply to him. “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else,” wrote Johnson’s Eton College house master Martin Hammond in 1982, as quoted in Andrew Gimson’s biography of the British premier.

he approach seems to have stayed with Johnson throughout his career, repeatedly landing him in hot water.

For weeks his government has been fending off allegations of sleaze, corruption, questionable sexual behaviour and other shady dealings. Adding to the impression of disarray, it emerged that Johnson’s mobile phone number is still available on the internet, culled from a press release published 15 years ago.

The political donations watchdog opened an official inquiry last week after concluding there were “reasonable grounds” to believe the law had been broken in the way refurbishments to Johnson’s apartment were paid for.

On the face of it, just days away from crucial local elections this Thursday, the political price could be high.

Boris Johnson insists he broke no laws and is complying fully with the rules on political funding and the investigations into what happened.

“I don’t think there’s anything to see here,” he said on Thursday, describing the row as a “farrago of nonsense”.

While most Conservatives believe their leader will ride out the storm, few are happy about it. One senior Tory figure attributes the premier’s difficulties to his “casual” approach, which has become worse since the pandemic suspended or compromised the usual procedures for holding ministers to account.

In the words of one Tory minister, this “ridiculous” row about £800-per-roll wallpaper in the Downing Street flat is typical of the premier’s “carelessness” and shows he probably didn’t think through the implications of his actions.

Yet overall, Johnson seems to have been right. So far in his career, his disregard for the normal rules of engagement has not held him back. In fact, it has been a large factor in his appeal as a politician.

For Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister, one reason why he is so popular and has won over people who voted Labour all their lives is because he deliberately shuns political correctness, speaking out controversially and obviously flouting normal rules.

Johnson plays up the performance, too. When he is getting ready to be photographed he does the exact opposite of a slickly-styled politician. Instead of tidying himself up for the cameras, he runs a meaty hand through his blond hair to make it messy.

He shrugged off allegations of an affair with American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri, who was given taxpayer funding while Johnson was mayor of London. None of this mattered much in 2019 when he led the Tories to an historic 80-seat majority at the general election.

Tory MP James Sunderland said voters are “very supportive” of Johnson and want a prime minister who is “visual” and outspoken. “Boris Johnson is a personality.”

He said voters are “not bothered” by the row over the apartment “because this is just another attempt to find sleaze and scandal when it’s just not there”.

One senior party official said the premier would be fine so long as next week’s elections in local English councils go well. Johnson and the Conservatives are ahead of the Labour opposition in opinion polls, with a YouGov survey for The Times giving the Tories an 11-point lead last Thursday. 

But the sheer weight of allegations piling up against Johnson and his Conservatives remains a risk. For one thing, regulators may be less tolerant than voters. In 2018 parliamentary authorities rapped him for repeatedly being late in disclosing payments he had received.

In another report in 2019 the authorities were even less impressed that he had failed to register his ownership of a share of a house in the countryside. Parliament’s Committee on Standards concluded “with concern” that these two investigations demonstrated “a pattern of behaviour” by Johnson.

While he wasn’t trying to hide anything Johnson displayed “an over-casual attitude toward obeying the rules” along with “a lack of effective organisation” within his office, the panel said. Further breaches could lead to more serious sanctions in future, it warned.

The big danger for the premier is that the investigations into the Downing Street flat may take months or longer to conclude while the drip-drip of allegations continues. Johnson has made an enemy of his former aide Dominic Cummings, who is now on the warpath and ready to give evidence under oath.

“After a year when many people have lost relatives and friends to the virus or lost their jobs and struggled to support themselves, revelations that the prime minister’s girlfriend has recruited a designer to overhaul the flat, spending tens of thousands of pounds, will seem graceless,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government.

In the end, even with a very forgiving public, the most popular prime ministers run out of road, according to Andrew Gimson. “Every sort of charm wears off eventually.” 

© Washington Post

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