A dangerous charlatan, an appalling philanderer, indifferent to the truth, careless with public money, reckless, immoral.
We all know who we’re talking about. But where were these particular charges against Boris Johnson levelled? In the Daily Mail – the paper now thundering at Tory MPs, including its former Brexit standard-bearer David Davis, who think they’ve seen enough of those failings. They should grow up and get behind their leader.
What happened? Was the Mail wrong back in 2016, when it “had no doubt” that Michael Gove had good reason to sabotage Johnson’s bid for No 10? Ah yes, the “act of midnight treachery” that came hot on the heels of an email from Gove’s now-estranged wife, the Mail columnist Sarah Vine, urging him to give no ground in securing assurances on immigration before backing Johnson. “Crucially,” she wrote, “the membership will not have the necessary reassurance to back Boris, neither will Dacre/Murdoch, who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris/Gove ticket.”
The email, which made the splash for the Telegraph, strangely did not feature in the Mail’s extensive coverage of the fallout the next day, but its leader did say it had “long had grave doubts” about whether Johnson was a serious politician or “capable of the devotion to public duty” required of a prime minister. Have those doubts been quieted by his towering performance once in the job?
Did the “No 10 décor scandal”, the £15,000 “island paradise” holiday, the Covid “fiascos” and “shambles” and “failures” and “catastrophes” and “chaos” and “scandals” and “betrayals”, all reported and dissected in every grim detail, convince the paper that it was mistaken in that earlier judgment? Or the Owen Paterson affair that saw “Shameless MPs sink back into sleaze” and prompted it to ask on the front page “Is ANYBODY in charge at No 10?”
The Mail has never been Johnson’s loudest critic – that is obviously a role for the Guardian, lefties, the woke and bitter Remoaners – though, as we see, it has not shied away from pointing out the multiple errors of his ways. But who would have expected a paper that has set much store by claiming to know what its readers think to become Johnson’s staunchest champion at a time when his poll ratings are plummeting? In its defence of Johnson during his darkest hours, it has been even more slavish than the puppydog Express, the sycophantic Sun – now so embarrassed by its own parties and its deputy editor’s part in this scandal that it pretends it’s not happening – and far more so than the Telegraph, which is busily adding fuel to the fire engulfing its favourite son?
The rationale seems to be that if all of the above “mis-steps” could be glossed over – or fail to “cut through” with voters, then a few drinks in the garden are hardly enough to unseat a prime minister. That would make sense if the drinks in the garden had also failed to “cut through”. But they definitely have. Listen to the testimony of people unable to be with loved ones as they died while the people who made the rules partied, and consider their stories alongside the Mail’s campaign for mothers and daughters to be allowed to hold hands in care homes. Has the paper forgotten those people now as it shifts to the Rees-Mogg “restrictions were too tough” narrative with “Who didn’t break lockdown rules” think-pieces?
Three years ago, the Mail defended Johnson over his controversial burka “letterboxes” column, accusing his critics of rank hypocrisy and citing a Sky opinion poll showing that 60% of respondents did not think his remarks racist. This, it said, proved that most of the public were more level-headed than rent-a-mouth politicians (ie arch-Remainer Dominic Grieve). Yet now the court of public opinion apparently counts for nothing. While anything between 66 and 74% of the public – and entire Question Time audiences – say Johnson should resign, the paper is now adamant that he should remain in office.
What is going on? Is this not the perfect opportunity for the paper to call time on a man who has served his purpose in “delivering Brexit”, a man who so conspicuously fails to pay even lip service to the middle-class morality that is the very essence of the Daily Mail?
There seemed, early last week, to be a moment of temperature-taking when the May 20 “work event” story broke. “Is the party over for Boris?” the paper asked. Britain was “fizzing with anger”; Stephen Glover and Sarah Vine were wheeled out to read the riot act; only a grovelling apology might allow him to move on. The next day brought a PMQs that was universally viewed as Keir Starmer finally taking advantage of an open goal. Various polls suggested that more people believed the moon landings were faked or that there was a monster in Loch Ness than believed the prime minister hadn’t realised he was at a party. Surely the game was up?
But for the Mail, it was the start of “Operation Save Boris”. If there was a villain that day, it was Rishi Sunak for being absent from the Commons and too slow to tweet his support afterwards. That day’s leader, headlined “PM can bounce back from this humbling”, was extraordinary in the context of the surrounding press coverage. It accepted Johnson’s remorse as sincere and then not only congratulated him for previous “masterstrokes”, but also said that he could come to be regarded as a hero. Not for having parties during lockdown, of course, but for releasing the country from the coronavirus straightjacket – if he were brave enough to do so.
Next day it was urging Tories “to stop the infighting”, the next it was calling for “a sense of perspective”, while accusing Starmer of hypocrisy for holding a bottle of beer in Durham. Was it really in the interests of the country or the party for Johnson to go? Within three days, it had well and truly “moved on” and it was the “sanctimonious” Starmer who MUST say sorry. The defection and the “pork pie plot” occasioned so much spluttering that it afflicted even the usually-razor sharp headline-writers to produce “Treachery of the Red Wall traitors”.
“Be careful what you wish for,” the leader cautioned the “rebels”; their hysteria could let Keir Starmer in. Which is exactly what it told Boris Johnson in a 2018 editorial when he was destabilising Theresa May – only then it was Corbyn who might be the beneficiary.
There are two years to the next election. Does the Mail think no other Conservative leader is capable of winning then? That’s some indictment. Does it think Johnson will survive that long, still be the “good old boy” in the public eyes? That sees a bigger gamble than getting someone new in now and letting them establish themselves before they have to face the country.
But the Mail can’t detect a candidate it likes. It may approve more of Sunak’s brand of low-tax Conservatism than Johnson’s spendthriftery, but it knows that the Chancellor’s billionaire wife and his geeky awkwardness may not have enough public appeal; it trumpets Liz Truss’s “achievements”, but has she lived down that cheese speech? And don’t forget she voted Remain; might she go soft on Brexit? The Saj? Maybe. But supposing the party went for Hunt or Tugendhat? It’s just too risky to get rid of Johnson yet.
And there are benefits to keeping him in place. We want an end to Covid restrictions; he has lifted them. We want the BBC reined in; he’s freezing the licence fee. We want more action to stop migration, he’s going to send in the Navy.
The purpose of that 2016 leader after Gove stabbed Johnson in the front was to anoint Theresa May as the next PM. She duly won the leadership and the Mail was true to her right to the bitter end, pressing her version of Brexit and berating both Remainers (“Crush the saboteurs”) and the ERG brigade who stood in her way. In those days, Rees-Mogg, Braverman and Trevelyan were under fire and Andrew Bridgen sufficiently well thought of to be allowed a column.
Over the next three years, a number of Mail pet issues were addressed, starting with a “crackdown” within days of it demanding action on the “madness” of drivers using their mobiles at the wheel. The Mail looked after Theresa and she was in its debt to the extent that it sometimes felt that Paul Dacre (at whose 25th anniversary party she was a guest) was running the country.
Is that where we are now with Johnson? The paper has already been rewarded for its loyalty with a “scoop” on the Prime Minister’s baby daughter having Covid. Then there were the “look what they used to get up to” stories on the very day “attention-seeking” William Wragg accused whips of threatening rookie MPs regarded as potential rebels with damaging tips to the press. His allegations were subsequently brushed aside and the Mail did not seem in the slightest bit concerned that both gerrymandering and pork-barrelling might be standard weapons in the whips’ armoury. If that were the case, that would go way beyond “the whips turning the screws as usual”. It’s one thing to threaten to breathe life into long-hidden skeletons, to imply that careers could be advanced or destroyed on an injudicious vote; it is quite another to assume the power to manipulate electoral boundaries or the allocation of public money to sustain an individual in office. The one is merely distasteful, the other unlawful. Meanwhile it opened Sue Gray week – potentially the biggest in Johnson’s career – with a front-page story about Angela Rayner’s private life.
But there’s more to it than iffy scoops. A weakened prime minister beholden to the Mail puts the paper back in control. BBC? Tick; immigration? Tick; Covid restrictions? Tick. Reform of the Civil Service: the ‘Whitehall blob’ is not only accused of blocking Dacre’s path to the Ofcom chair, but is also now under fire for refusing to get off its collective Peloton and back into the office. Like the blackmailer, the Mail will keep coming back for more. Now it is demanding the imminent NI increase be reversed. An end to the green energy levy is also at the top of its shopping list. If Johnson survives, he will have to add the Mail’s agenda to the party donors, hedge funds and other assorted people to whom he is hostage.
In May 2015, the Mail celebrated David Cameron’s election win as “A victory for common sense” and in July it hailed Osborne’s budget as “Fearless George slays the dragons”. But once they dared veer from the Dacre-prescribed path, the paper dumped on them royally.
When Theresa May was under threat, the Mail did all it could to protect her and was coruscating about Mogg and his “plotters” and the circling “vultures”. But when the game was up, it switched to one of those vultures – Boris Johnson.
For now he is the useful idiot, but if the axe falls it will not mourn for long.