Why the Cummings row won't harm Boris

27 April 2021

4:43 PM

27 April 2021

4:43 PM

It’s hard not to agree with those who believe that Boris Johnson, forced into the second Covid-19 lockdown, did say the words: ‘No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.’

The allegation seems particularly convincing because it was reported in the Daily Mail, whose political team is one of the most plugged in to goings-on at the top of government, the civil service and the Conservative party.

I am convinced, too, because it sounds all too plausible. Before entering Downing Street, the Prime Minister made a career as a polemicist and public speaker out of incendiary comments. It fits, also, with his professed sympathy with Larry Vaughn, the major in Jaws who keeps the beaches open despite evidence of a Great White shark because he figures a few chewed-up paddlers is a price worth paying for Amity’s tourist economy to coin it in over the 4 July weekend.

But in spite of the fact these allegations against Boris are probably true, I’m not sure any of this really matters. Westminster, the media, the infinite outrage-generator that is Twitter — all have been going into overdrive about the Prime Minister’s remarks. But will any of it cut through?

Support for Boris seems to be baked in the way support for Sturgeon is in Scotland, or for Donald Trump during the Republican primaries for the 2016 election. The Prime Minister has a large constituency of backers who appear willing to forgive or simply ignore statements and actions that would carry serious consequences for other politicians. I would even venture that some slice of this constituency revels in its hero’s facility for triggering the libs. It’s one of his selling points for them.

We will have to wait to see whether this story causes any damage, let alone any sustained damage, but I would guess not. There is a lesson in this for those who throw the word ‘character’ at Boris as though chucking a shuriken. It bounces off because too many voters no longer see character as a quality of political leadership, or are looking for a different order of character. That is, having decided (perhaps because of the Iraq war, the expenses scandal, the attempt to stymie Brexit, or a combination) that all parties and politicians are rotten, they prefer leaders who do not affect to be paragons. If anything, they prefer bounders, provided those bounders side with them against the wider political class.

There has always been cynicism about politics but the current cynicism feels more pervasive and certainly more enduring. There is a reason why, a quarter-century since Tony Blair’s new dawn broke (did it not?) that we have not seen any of his successors greeted by such unalloyed public trust and idealism. Why a remark which seems to thoroughly vindicate the Prime Minister’s critics will probably merit no more than a paragraph in his memoirs.

I would rather politics wasn’t like this and that Boris Johnson had been, and still was, a non-starter for high office, but I’m not convinced that impotently raging against him is doing anything to get us to that kind of politics. Those of us who lament Boris’s premiership will have to accept that he can’t be beaten on Twitter: he has to be beaten at the ballot box. Almost two years since he entered Number 10, we seem no closer to doing that.

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