Richard North, 27/04/2021  

"Politics is not linear", says Daniel Finkelstein in The Times, adding that: "The impact of events is not predictable with a constant relationship between input and output. Things don't matter politically until suddenly they do". He continues:
This is what makes it hard to judge the impact on Boris Johnson's reputation and prospects of the allegations made against him by Dominic Cummings at the end of last week. It's not hard to imagine them fading fairly quickly. Yet I don't think it is preposterous to imagine them forcing him out of office.
The only thing I would question here is whether Johnson has a "reputation" here – in the sense that Finkelstein means. As I cited yesterday, Johnson is a man characterised by his "lying incompetence, idleness, philandering self-obsession and intellectual vacuity".

We need to keep reminding ourselves that it is quite staggering that such charges can be laid against a serving prime minister, in a national newspaper, without the slightest fear of a libel suit. That is the measure of Johnson's "reputation".

And now there is a definite sign of chickens coming home to roost, with the Guardian reporting that the prime minister is "‘isolated and at risk of becoming uncontrollable".

The paper cites one of those ever-willing, anonymous Whitehall sources, who "spoke of frustration that the government seemed to have lost credibility when denying claims on the record". Only in the bubble, one ventures could someone actually offer a comment that the government "seemed to have lost credibility".

Led by a congenital liar who doubtless delivers a dozen untruths before breakfast, just as a warming-up exercise, it would be more accurate to say that this government's credibility is shot to hell. Johnson swearing that the sun is shining outside is a cue to reach for the umbrella.

Thus, while yesterday, Johnson, supported by his official spokesman, denied that he had said he would refuse to impose a third lockdown even if "bodies pile up high in their thousands", BBC immediately repeated the claim.

This had the Guardian's source asking: "How have they got themselves in this horrible position where they can deny things on the record and the BBC will run it anyway because they think their own sources are more trustworthy?" One assumes the question is rhetorical: Aesop, wolf, boy and cry, refers.

Faced with such a politically damaging charge, Johnson didn't exactly help himself, delivering his denial from the Net World Sports factory on Wrexham Industrial Estate, dressed in the ubiquitous hi-viz jacket that he so favours.

And while the situation demanded a statesman-like demeanour, the man couldn't resist making a fool of himself playing table tennis. Gravitas and this prime minister are very distant acquaintances.

With this, Johnson's tactics are nothing if not transparent, attempting to play down the issues and to steer the narrative in other directions. The public, said the wolf-crier, were more interested in what the government was doing to move the country "cautiously but irreversibly through the steps of the road map to unlock and to get our country going".

But even the Spectator magazine is deserting its former editor. It has Alex Massie write:
Of course Boris Johnson raged, King Lear-like, that he was prepared to "let the bodies pile high in their thousands" if the alternative was subjecting the country to a third lockdown more dispiriting than either of its dreary, even grim, predecessors. I say "of course he said it" not just because at least three different sources have confirmed to at least three different reporters that the Prime Minister did say it but also, and significantly, because it would be so wholly in character for the Prime Minister to have said it. If it sounds like the sort of thing he would say, that is largely because it is the sort of thing he would say.
Johnson's denial could not have been more succinct. Asked if he had ever made those remarks, the prime minister simply said: "No". This, Massie remarked, was not "convincing".

His quick "No" before pivoting to more important things (which no-one currently thinks more important) had more than a tinge of a child caught red-handed who knows he must put up a show of innocence while understanding this is all it is: a required show that persuades nobody. Worse still, Massie has this to say:
The details of who leaked what and when are of almost zero significance save on two counts. First, the so-called 'chatty rat' performed a significant public service by bouncing the PM into announcing a second lockdown before he wished to do so. This rat saved lives. Second, and revealingly, the leak tells us that at least some of those closest to Johnson understands he is not capable of being a high-functioning prime minister. If he were, no leak would have been required. If he were capable he would not be bounceable; if he were capable he would not need to be bounced. Either way, the same result is evident: a prime minister too weak to set his own course.
The Spectator is not alone in thinking that Cummings's attack spells big trouble for Johnson but, if any confirmation was needed, today's front-page headlines provide it in spades.

The Metro leads the charge, using a picture of Johnson's farm visit against him with the headline: "Slurry of Sleaze", alluding to Labour's claim of "sewage of claims". The Times picks up a new allegation, charging that Johnson said he would "let Covid rip", rather than impose a second lockdown, arguing that there was no evidence that they worked and describing them as "mad".

But it is the Mail that takes it furthest, proclaiming on its front page: "Boris on the ropes", claiming that its earlier "bodies" comments was confirmed later in the day by the BBC and ITV.

However, the real clues as to how serious this is for Johnson come from his fan magazine, the Telegraph, with the headline: "Boris Johnson fights to move on from leaks row". It then marshals its compliant staff to tell us that "No 10 must move on from the warped tragedy of Dominic Cummings", and that "The country needs leadership focused on the future, not bogged down by accusations dredged up from the past".

Dominic Cummings proves that "there is a fine line between cleverness and farce in politics". A man who came in to smash the righteous metropolitan orthodoxy now seeks to leverage it as a weapon against the Prime Minister. His is a depressing and ironic story. The country deserves better. Thus, we are told, "No 10 must rise above it and focus on more pressing matters".

This is reinforced by the editorial which blandly reassures us that "Tory sleaze accusations are unlikely to stick", bemoaning the "extraordinary" situation that, "in the midst of a pandemic and faced with the dire economic consequences of lockdown, the political world's attention is fixated on the refurbishment of a flat".

As always, there is this almost complete absence of self-awareness – the Telegraph has been a leader of the pack on this but now the situation is getting dangerous, the paper is trying to turn it onto a Labour attack, appealing to tribal loyalties.

This may or may not work, but the Standard reports: "Tories plunge five points after weeks of growing sleaze controversy, exclusive poll reveals". The Conservatives, it says, have slipped to 40 percent ahead of the local elections. Labour, on the other hand, have not picked up any points.

To an extent, the electorate may be saying "a plague on both your houses", but even this could hurt Johnson. Nevertheless, Finkelstein's words of caution must prevail. It is still hard to judge the impact all this might have on Boris Johnson, although I would suggest that, even if he survives this frenzy, things will never be the same again.

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