Voices: Boris Johnson appears to be falling apart – but then again, when was he ever not?

·4-min read

“Is everything OK, prime minister?”

It’s not really a normal question for an actual journalist to ask an actual prime minister, that one. It is, quite obviously, only the sort of question you get asked if everything really doesn’t seem to be OK. And it is also barely a week since the prime minister had to stand in front of the world’s media, at a huge international conference he was hosting, and explain that, actually, the UK is “not a corrupt country”. Again, you know, if you have to say it.

It is also not normal for the prime minister’s official spokesperson to then have to explain that, yes, the prime minister really is OK.

What’s prompted this is that he lost his place in a speech that was mainly about Peppa Pig World and also featured an impression of a car. So it’s possible it’s been overstated. But that speech also happened a few hours before he would cling on, by a rather small 26-vote margin, to changes he had made to his new plan on social care.

Raising national insurance to fund social care is, so far, the most important part of his “levelling-up” agenda, even though, by raising national insurance to pay for it, it’s been done in the least progressive, least “levelling up” way possible (national insurance hits the lowest paid people the hardest). And now it’s been gently tweaked to mean that people with less to lose will lose more. Dozens of his own MPs refused to back the plan, for obvious reasons, and all this after the still jaw-dropping mess that was made of the now-disgraced Owen Paterson saga.

Anonymous quotes emerge from inside 10 Downing Street, suggesting Johnson is losing out, is losing control, and that things need to change. Are things falling apart?

Maybe they are, but were they ever not? It is perhaps worth recalling, at this point, that in what can be considered his first proper week as prime minister, when parliament returned in September 2019, he kicked out 22 of his own MPs, including Ken Clarke and Winston Churchill’s grandson. At his first prime minister’s questions, there was actual applause in the chamber when he was accused, entirely accurately, of racism by the country’s first Sikh MP, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi. He gave a televised statement outside 10 Downing Street in which he said he didn’t want an election, then had to have his aides explain, anonymously to the media, that what he’d meant to say was that he does want an election. And then, having been on television to say he didn’t want an election, had paid advisers go round Westminster handing out pieces of chicken with Jeremy Corbyn’s face on.

And then he gave a speech at a police training academy that was even weirder than Monday’s efforts, and which went on for so long that one of the police trainees standing behind him collapsed. And then the head of the police force in question disowned the entire event. And then, a little while later, he lied to the Queen to get parliament shut down, and then the Supreme Court reopened it. And then, and this really is the important point here, he won an election by an absolutely massive margin.

So it isn’t always, necessarily the case that just because everything looks like it’s very much not OK that it isn’t actually, as far as he’s concerned, OK. As far as he’s concerned everything’s probably fine. He, after all, has the magic touch, as far as he’s concerned. And it is a certain fact that no other prime minister, in all of British political history, has caused the “needless” (D Cummings) death of tens of thousands of his own people and still maintained a steady poll lead, because nothing even remotely like that has ever happened before.

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But even so, there do appear to be real consequences to the broken shopping trolley school of government. Last week, he appeared to have worked out that the only way to even vaguely move on from the three-week-long sleazefest was to admit that it had mainly been his fault (though he didn’t apologise for it). It’s not yet clear who is going to have to take the blame for the most important bit, indeed the only real bit, so far, of the all important levelling-up agenda now appearing like it has been deliberately and ingeniously designed to be as regressive and as unfair as possible.

The levelling-up agenda, as things stand, involves getting the least well off, and the lowest paid people to part with money they don’t really have in order to ensure that sixtysomethings don’t miss out on inheriting the inflated property wealth their eightysomething parents never actually earned.

This sort of thing is not really what the red wall Conservatives got into it all for. And if it goes on for much longer, the trolley will have no one to blame should it find itself quietly chucked in a canal.

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