Even if he – somehow – remains prime minister for another decade or more, it will be hard to find a better single moment to summarise Boris Johnson’s premiership than one that happened last Monday at the Port of Tyne near South Shields.
Standing at a podium to give a straightforward speech to the sober-minded Confederation of British Industry, Johnson somehow let that simple task unravel.
He lost his place, lost his page number, and was flailing for seconds that felt like hours, with a mumbled refrain of “forgive me… forgive me… forgive me”, met by nothing more than silence.
The moment on its own is a trivial one, as most cut-through moments are, but it was one that broke through the normal grind of political news straight to the top of the agenda; not quite what the Tories had hoped for when they elected a leader who promised big box office.
The meltdown was so bad that one of Johnson’s post-speech interviews concluded with him being asked: “is everything all right?” That was a fair question after the prime minister rambled from the lectern about Peppa Pig, allowing The Times’ leader page to brand his speech a “Pig’s Ear”, and impersonated the sound of a car speeding up, in a sequence of grunts transcribed in the official Downing Street release of the speech as “arum arum aaaaaaaaag”.
The buffoonish performance might have gone down well with loyalists in years past, but things have changed. One of the party’s increasingly rebellious MPs said: “I thought today’s performance was the most embarrassing by a Conservative prime minister since last week’s PMQs. He is losing the confidence of the party.”
The moment when Johnson lost it also summarised the recurring theme of his premiership like little else: failing to execute on the simplest of plans, managing to snatch failure from the jaws of victory, and just generally falling apart in public.
Still, it is better to show rather than tell, and so below is a selected timeline of Boris Johnson’s “triumphs” and disasters related to his premiership. A small selection of those from before his move to Number 10 are included, but only where they become relevant to his time as PM.
Sadly, the litany of errors in Johnson’s prior journalistic and political lives – let alone in his private life – have had to be excluded for reasons of space, as to do all of those justice would require at least a book-length effort, if not more.
Here then, is a potted history of the failures of the Johnson premiership:
June 2016: Boris Johnson secures Michael Gove to run his Tory leadership campaign. This is regarded as something of a political coup.
June 2016: Michael Gove “reluctantly but firmly” decides Johnson is not up to the job of PM, and announces his own candidacy. Johnson is forced to drop out of the leadership contest.
July 2018: Theresa May announces her “Chequers plan” for “managed divergence” from the European Union. Now foreign secretary, Johnson for several days says nothing about the deal, having appeared to support it at the prime minister’s residence. However, one day after David Davis resigns from the Cabinet over the deal, Johnson decides he doesn’t like it either. One of the main criticisms in his resignation letter is that May’s plan calls for “an impractical and undeliverable customs arrangement unlike any other in existence”.
July 2019: May leaves No.10, following a battering at the European elections. Johnson beats Jeremy Hunt for the Tory leadership and moves in; he brings in Vote Leave architect Dominic Cummings as his chief advisor, a move seen as a political triumph by friendly media.
August 2019: Johnson decides to pursue an aggressive approach using no-deal as a threat against both European negotiators and British MPs – meaning any deal agreed would need to be passed in mere days, or else the UK would leave with a catastrophic no-deal. Given parliament is clearly not on board with this plan, Johnson’s Number 10 comes up with a ploy: parliament will be prorogued for a month, an unprecedented use of Royal Protocol power. This is seized on by Brexit supporters as a political triumph.
September 2019: In a bid to play hardball with his own MPs, Johnson removes the whip from 21 Conservative MPs, including 12 former Cabinet ministers and Winston Churchill’s grandson, giving his government a record-breaking majority of around minus 40. He tries and fails three times to secure an early general election.
September 2019: In another unprecedented move, the UK Supreme Court rules Johnson’s use of the prorogation power unlawful, and parliament is immediately returned back to session, as if it never left.
October 2019: Johnson tentatively agrees a Brexit deal with the EU, which unlike Theresa May’s proposals, creates a “sea border” between mainland UK and Northern Ireland. The DUP, which had previously enjoyed huge influence propping up May and Johnson’s governments, is shocked at the betrayal.
October 2019: Lacking the votes to pass his deal, Johnson allows another extension to no-deal and calls an early general election. Every single Conservative candidate signs a pledge saying they fully support Johnson’s “oven-ready” Brexit deal. This is, once again, seen as a political triumph.
December 2019: Johnson wins a landslide majority of 80, on a manifesto promising to pass his “oven-ready” Brexit deal, “fix” the social care crisis, to “level up” the north, and not to raise income tax, VAT, or national insurance.
March 2020: Less than a fortnight after Johnson boasted of “shaking hands with everybody” in hospital, and saying there would be no need for restrictions, he announces a national lockdown for coronavirus. He says the UK will beat the virus in 12 weeks.
March 2020: Amid the early days of the pandemic, Johnson has his official residence – described as a “John Lewis nightmare” – renovated, at a cost of more than £88,000, far more than the annual allowance of £30,000 given to the PM for its upkeep. This is not made public at the time.
April 2020: Boris Johnson catches Covid-19 and is eventually admitted to ICU. Many other senior Cabinet ministers also catch the virus, albeit less seriously, hampering the UK’s early Corona response.
May 2020: Johnson spends great political capital standing by chief advisor Dominic Cummings after a series of blatant breaches of Covid rules – not least a 45-minute drive to North Yorkshire beauty spot Barnard Castle as an “eye test” – culminating in a bizarre Rose Garden address by Cummings.
November 2020: Cummings resigns after a series of acrimonious power plays against Johnson’s wife Carrie. Following his resignation, he launches regular, scathing blog posts against Johnson, regularly calling the prime minister a “trolley”.
December 2020: Johnson refuses to introduce a pre-Christmas lockdown or other restrictions, promising the British public repeatedly they will be able to see loved ones over the key few days that make up the Christmas period. Inevitably, for tens of millions of people across the country, this does not prove to be the case, with all household mixing banned.
October 2021: Rishi Sunak raises national insurance by 2.5p in the pound, for both employers and employees – the largest such rise on what has been dubbed an “employment tax” in decades, ostensibly to fix social care, although social care will receive no funds from the new tax for at least three years. Manifesto promises are hurriedly brushed aside.
April 2021: Cummings reveals Johnson obtained undeclared support from a donor to fund his lavish refurbishment of the Number 11 flat. Amid the scandal, Johnson is forced to pay for the redecoration himself, and faces investigation by the Electoral Commission and the Parliamentary Commissioner on Standards.
May 2021: It is reported Johnson’s £840-a-roll wallpaper is peeling.
October 2021: Johnson says the Northern Ireland protocol – a key part of the “oven-ready” Brexit deal he required every single one of his MPs to agree to fully support – needs to be “fixed or ditched”. As yet there is no word on whether he plans to suspend the whip from himself.
November 2021: Johnson’s government make new environmental pledges to make the UK carbon-neutral for COP26. Johnson then flies in a private jet to a dinner with former Telegraph colleagues (at which he spoke nottoo-kindly about his wife), while his transport secretary is revealed to have spent taxpayer money helping private airfields oppose government plans. Later, his government vastly waters down plans for rail investment in northern England.
November 2021: In an unprecedented move, Conservatives issue a three-line whip on a vote on the suspension of Owen Paterson for “egregious” outside lobbying. Within 24 hours the government has u-turned, but not in time to stop a weeks-long second jobs scandal. Media outlets note Johnson faces a future investigation by the same body, over his wallpaper.
November 2021: Johnson’s MPs vote through his social care deal, which protects millionaires while making relatively poor adults lose their homes – while also not fixing the social care crisis.
November 2021: Johnson’s director of communications threatens to sue The New European. The next day Number 10 u-turns on this, too.