I always thought it would be sleaze, not sex, that would be Boris Johnson's downfall, says PM's ex Petronella Wyatt

I ALWAYS thought it would be sleaze, not sex, that would be Boris Johnson’s downfall.

Unless he quickly pulls himself together, what began as the Owen Paterson affair may be duly marked by historians as the moment my old friend descended too deeply into the mud of the political crossroads.

It is true that in the past our Prime Minister has traversed more “turning points” than St Paul ever dreamt of in a lifetime. But, after the events of the past two weeks, can he be taken seriously by literate and decent voters?

The best argument his supporters can dredge up (and it is one I have used myself) is to the general effect that his misjudgments should be excused by his earnestness — that underneath his clowning, is the zeal of a steadfast soul.

The Boris of yore, though he often bemoaned to me the constraints of democracy, appeared to accept that we no longer inhabited a country of robber barons, of which he intended to be chief, merrily creating his personal fiefdom.

The trouble is not that Boris has changed so unutterably, but that there is no one inside No10 or his inner circle to constrain his excesses.

No Prime Minister can survive repeated attacks of the dreaded sleaze, the mystery disease which can cause the premature death of entire governments. Boris’s personal approval rating has dropped to minus 20, and his condition remains grave.

Recently, I wrote a humorous article entitled Build Back Boris. But I am no longer sure that anything can be salvaged from the scrapheap of the man I once knew and liked.

Growing arrogance

For decades a beloved national institution, like Nelson’s Column or the Albert Memorial, even the combined talents of the Fine Arts Committee and English Heritage could do little to save him and put him back together.

Despite his frailties, Boris was once political gold. His was the priceless currency of lovability and an almost mystical empathy with the voters, both Tory and Labour. Just look at his time as Mayor of London and his life-changing decision to champion Brexit.

Whilst not being the man on the Clapham Omnibus, he seemed to know precisely what that man and woman were thinking. We must ask ourselves, what has gone so calamitously wrong? The latest opinion polls indicate that a majority of the public believe Mr Johnson is leading the most corrupt and out-of-touch government in 40 years.

My memory gropes back to when I first met Boris, nearly 20 years ago. He was editor of The Spectator and I was his deputy. It struck me quite quickly that he was not a man who made friends easily.

Those few friends he did introduce me to were remarkable both for their mediocrity and their almost comical timidity.

Observing them, I noticed that they resembled satellite planets circling the sun. They reacted to every word Boris spoke as if it were wisdom of an occult and superior sort. It is a sign of insecurity to surround yourself with inferiors, and this insecurity, combined with a growing arrogance and disdain for the rules of human conduct, is now defining Boris’s premiership.

With the honorable exception of Michael Gove, a decent and courageous man, the Prime Minister has created a Cabinet of Lilliputians, and he has done this deliberately. Consider his Chief Whip, Mark Spencer.

Spencer swathes the bitter realities of politics in bandages of soft illusion because his boss fills him with terror. Yet it is his role to warn the Prime Minister of impending danger and dissatisfaction.

The latest opinion polls indicate that a majority of the public believe Mr Johnson is leading the most corrupt and out-of-touch government in 40 years.

Spencer has comprehended, that like Henry VIII, Boris does not do bad news. Indeed, he once told me he shared the attitude of the Duke of Wellington, who complained after his first Cabinet meeting as Prime Minister that: “I gave them my orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.”

In Middle England Boris may hold his appeal to the end, but in the towns and the cities that comprise the Northern Wall they have penetrated what they see as an imposture. Once men and women who won him the election, they increasingly view the Prime Minister with a bilious eye.

Where is the Boris Touch, once as sure and effective as the hallucinogenics of the great PT Barnum? It is possible that Covid has played a part in destroying the almost mystical bond Boris once had with the electorate. Repeated lockdowns have made it impossible to indulge in the gabble of the meet-and-greet or the once interminable Tory shindigs and dinners, peopled by honest believers who enjoy reminding Prime Ministers that they are public servants.

But as an excuse, it is diluted and cheapened by unedifying and tacky events of recent weeks. Secretly, Boris is bored and oppressed by Parliament-made laws and social customs, and yearns for a sort of benign dictatorship. Once, after a long day at The Spectator, as the night was drawing in, he began talking about his Turkish ancestors, some of whom worked for the Sultans.

In their untrammelled pursuit of total power, the Sultans met with his approval.
Boris has always done as he wishes, ignoring trivial conventions. Like an increasingly bent copper on the beat, he sympathises with other rule-breakers. It was no surprise that this sympathy was extended to Owen Paterson.

In a private individual, such disdain for democracy and convention often goes unnoticed. In a Prime Minister, it risks being fatal. Like many great showmen, Boris can be a charlatan. He can no more avoid it than he can avoid blinking his eyes.
It is precisely this sort of character who needs strong men and women around him who are not afraid to encourage him to cut a better figure in human and political society.

It is a tragedy that the few old friends and loved ones who sought to protect the decent inner Boris have been cut adrift and replaced with sycophants who resemble the cast of St Trinian’s.

I often wish he would reinstate those who civilized him, imbued him with dignity and reminded him that he was mortal. This would not only be good sense, but good politics, for in their absence he has developed an almost pathological sensitivity to pricks and stings, and an extraordinary capacity for irritation.

Elitist greenery

Humour is an essential piece of armour in a Prime Minister, but where is the ebullient, rib-tickling Boris we used to love? Now we have a more fractious, tumultuous Boris, who no longer fights like a gentleman, but like a drunken long- shoreman in a brawl.

As George Bush Sr used to remark, the Prime Minister needs to rediscover “the vision thing”. The voters cannot live on the mouldy scraps of Brexit. Nor will imposing electric cars along the length of the Northern Wall prove political gold.

Were Boris to remember the fundamentals of the successful statesman, he would jettison his elitist greenery and nail his mast to the populist blue of “levelling up”, which was a cogent, and kinder interpretation of Thatcherism.

As it is, new disclosures about cash for peerages, and the former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who appears to have been raking in the chips like a croupier, may bring him at last to a shoddy fate.

Tory MPs are notoriously unforgiving and Boris is now a Prime Minister stricken by sleaze.

The 2019 intake of Red Wall Tories are particularly fractious, for they know that arguing that the basic MPs salary of £82,000 is not enough to live on is staggeringly out of touch.

You must now get a grip, Boris. On yourself and on No10. Otherwise the prognosis is worrying.

They also won’t forget being asked to vote for the indefensible attempt to save Owen Paterson — only for Boris to U-turn within a day, harming their own credibility with their voters.

So you must now get a grip, Boris. On yourself and on No10.

Otherwise the prognosis is worrying. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Queen has asked to be kept informed.

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