Don’t expect Boris Johnson to stay the full course

PUBLISHED: 13:55 19 May 2020 | UPDATED: 13:55 19 May 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson before he participates in a TV interview. Photograph: Neil Hall/PA.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson before he participates in a TV interview. Photograph: Neil Hall/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

Keir Starmer’s arrival as Labour has come at the worst possible time for Boris Johnson - even Tory-supporting newspapers are starting to see through his act.

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When Boris Johnson is toppled, who will get the credit who for exposing his incompetence and mendacity?

That will surely be owed to Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, who has had the prime minister on the ropes in the three rounds of their head-to-head confrontations in the Commons.


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Just a few months after his Brexit-fuelled victory, Johnson is getting awful reviews for Commons outings. For a tribalist – which I admit to being a lot of the time – the reports of the last Prime Minister’s Questions make fun reading.

John Crace in The Guardian said “incompetent and unprepared PM crumbles at PMQs... the prime minister isn’t particularly bright: after all, it takes a very special type of cleverness to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.”

Such a publication giving Labour the victory is no surprise, but what will worry Johnson loyalists is three papers which might be expected to be more sympathetic.

In Johnson’s old paper, the Brexit-hugging Telegraph, Michael Deacon, says Starmer took Johnson apart “like a Duplo train set.... The new Labour leader asked a series of calmly factual questions – and the Prime Minister visibly struggled.”

Then we get Brexiter journalist and former UKIP MEP Patrick Flynn in the Spectator saying Johnson’s “sloppy PMQs performance is becoming a problem.”

You will recall the Evening Standard is edited by one George Osborne; anti Brexit for sure, but a Johnson backer in the Tory election. Joe Murphy demonstrated his journalistic independence.

“There is a terrifying quality to Sir Keir Starmer’s weekly interrogation of Boris Johnson. He doesn’t raise his voice, nor display anger; he just calmly, chillingly, dissects the facts he has assembled for the jury.

“His face is dispassionate, pitiless even, the expression of a prosecutor who has sent down bigger villains and merely wonders how long before the pathetic wretch in the dock trips himself up and realises the game is up.”

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All four pieces make great reading for Starmer fans. There is guilty fun to be had, too, from a couple of Johnson spoofs – by Little Britain comedian Matt Lucas which has had more than 5 million viewings and the brilliant must-watch Jamaican Refix show, which has had around 15,000 views but deserves many more.

So far, lots of fun at Johnson’s expense. Then the guilty bit. This is the man who is running the country at a time of national crisis and his failure to measure up to the job is no laughing matter.

Yet, we know that the only people who can remove him are the 365 Tory MPs, who outnumber Labour by more than 150, and give Johnson an overall majority of 80.

The Tories did, of course, have a gigantic majority of 213 in May 1940. That didn’t stop Neville Chamberlain being ousted, paving the way for Churchill to form a coalition with Labour leader Clement Atlee as his deputy. It was to Atlee that we owe the headline quote: “You don’t measure up to the job.” It was his short sharp explanation to Ministers he sacked, when he himself became PM in 1945.

We can be sure history won’t repeat itself any time soon. After all, many of the current crop of Tory MPs owe their seats to Johnson, who obliged them to sign a declaration to support Brexit as a condition of being a candidate last December. Johnson has set his face against an extension to EU negotiations even though the deadline is a few weeks away.

It will be the opinion polls and local election results which do it for Johnson. Currently, they are looking fairly rosy, although as polling guru Mike Smithson records, Starmer has edged ahead of Johnson in personal ratings and government approval has been in decline since the lockdown.

Former YouGov President Peter Kellner, says “ratings are currently similar to those of Thatcher and the Tories at the end of the Falklands War...

“Johnson will certainly lack one of Thatcher’s great advantages: a Labour leader, in Michael Foot, whose reputation then was much the same as Corbyn’s today.

“Johnson plainly hopes that the worst of the pandemic is now over. But the political challenges he will face for the rest of this parliament are only just beginning. “

Don’t be surprised if Johnson fails to stay the course.

• Don Brind is a press officer with Labour Movement for Europe and a former BBC political correspondent.

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