The most important truth about politics is that almost nothing matters. Most people, most of the time, are not paying attention. But sometimes the idle talk gives us a glimpse of the future and that is the significance of the terrible week that Boris Johnson has endured. The accusations that the Prime Minister wanted Tory donors to pay for the renovation of the Downing Street flat and that he was prepared to fix a tax issue for James Dyson in return for some ventilators might, in the fullness of time, be part of the story that brings down Johnson.
One of his great strengths is that he is a hard man to attack. Instead of declaring that he was an ideologue and a political vandal, Labour has accused Johnson of the lesser crime of incompetence and having no administrative grip. “It is sad to see the PM and his office fall so below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves”, as Dominic Cummings put it in his blog last week. When the death toll from the pandemic was climbing, and Britain’s performance was notably the worst in Europe, there seemed to be a lot in the critique. Johnson’s favourable ratings slipped a little.
Yet if the electorate still likes a politician, then those ratings can recover. The Prime Minister has taken some political credit, as he is entitled to do, from the efficiency of the NHS vaccination programme. On the same day that the newspaper headlines were about a spectacular bust-up between the Prime Minister and his former chief adviser, an opinion poll showed that the Conservative Party retained a double-digit lead over Labour. This is, in part, a judgment on the official opposition. A year into his leadership Sir Keir Starmer has removed the stigma of voting Labour. The electorate no longer fears a Labour government as it did under Jeremy Corbyn. But he has yet to supply a truly compelling reason to want a Labour government either.
Waiting for Mr Johnson’s allure to fade is not going to be enough. Whispers from the by-election campaign trail in Hartlepool suggest Labour is still struggling in the places it used to command great allegiance. The local elections on May 6 are unlikely to be the breakthrough Labour needs. Labour is a solid opposition, but it is not yet a putative government. Yet there is still a lot that should worry Johnson about the current set of allegations. Maybe he will brush them away, as he usually does with disobliging reports. It is part of his character that he does not believe the rules that apply to the mortals apply to him. In his study of the classics, he always imagines himself as one of the gods.
But one day Johnson will fall in the public estimation. One day he will leave office. There is a good chance that the reason he will do so will be linked to what is happening now. That does not mean that every current supporter who turns on him will remember, in detail, the claims and counter-claims about who paid the bill to renovate the Downing Street flat. It means that, when people do eventually find Johnson out, his slapdash nature, his uncertain relationship with the truth and his arrogance — all of which appear as virtues in the right light — will be the traits that bring him down. This week a seed has been planted.
As soon as you become pre-disposed to regard Johnson as a politician like all the others then the fact that the National Audit Office found that £10 billion of Covid-related contracts have been awarded to friends and acquaintances of the Prime Minister without competitive tender starts to count. So do the WhatsApp messages to Dyson and the text exchanges between David Cameron and Rishi Sunak. So does the flat renovation which, if it was paid for by a loan above £7,500, needs to be declared to the Electoral Commission.
There could come a day that the public shares Dominic Grieve’s wounding judgment that there is a “vacuum of integrity” around Mr Johnson.
The Government could enter the danger zone later this year. The vaccine boost will have faded. The Government’s support for business will have unwound and the Chancellor will be pressing for spending cuts. People who have just lost their jobs tend to be a great deal less forgiving of a Prime Minister who is not taking his own seriously. Cummings has called his former boss “unethical “ and “foolish”. Johnson may have a long political life yet, but you never escape your own character. These things will get him in the end. They always do.