LONDON — Boris Johnson, Britain’s freewheeling, clownish prime minister, is about to play host.
On June 11, the day after a private meeting with President Biden, Mr. Johnson is scheduled to welcome other Group of 7 leaders to Cornwall, on the southwestern coast of England, to discuss climate change, the global pandemic recovery and the retreat of liberal democracy around the world.
Yet Mr. Johnson may have other things on his mind. Over the past few months, a series of scandals and allegations has put the prime minister under unusual pressure. There have been accusations of corruption, reports of bitter rivalries on his closest team and, to top it off, explosive testimony from his former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, that laid responsibility for the handling of the pandemic in Britain — where over 125,000 people have died of Covid-19 — squarely at Mr. Johnson’s door. Story by story, scandal by scandal, Mr. Johnson has been exposed as a slapdash, venal, incompetent leader.
But it doesn’t seem to matter. The Conservatives, despite the controversy, are still comfortably ahead in the polls — and even managed to defeat the opposition Labour Party in a recent by-election, claiming the northeastern constituency of Hartlepool for the first time. And Mr. Johnson, for all the outrage and acrimony, can greet his fellow global leaders in a spirit of triumph. With healthy approval ratings and at the helm of a party boasting an 80-seat majority, his power is assured.
Given Mr. Johnson’s inaptitude for office, bracingly illuminated by Mr. Cummings’s testimony, that’s quite remarkable. Speaking to Parliament for over seven hours on May 26, Mr. Cummings, who masterminded Mr. Johnson’s election win in December 2019 — but who was ousted from his role as chief adviser a year later — tore into the government’s catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic, eviscerated the prime minister’s character and declared him “unfit for the job.”
Mr. Johnson’s initial failure to take the virus seriously is well documented, but some of the details were still astonishing. According to Mr. Cummings, Mr. Johnson initially claimed that the coronavirus “is only killing 80-year-olds” and wanted to be injected with the coronavirus live on television to show that there was nothing to worry about. (As it happened, Mr. Johnson contracted the virus in late March and spent a week in a hospital.)
The revelations came against a backdrop of reports exposing the Conservatives’ dodgy dealings during the pandemic: Covid-19 contracts worth billions of pounds going to friends of Conservative lawmakers with no experience in the health sector, business tycoons with direct lines to the prime minister to push their interests and a lavish renovation of the prime minister’s residence at Downing Street that involved a secret donation by a Tory backer. Talk of sleaze and Britain’s “chumocracy” has permeated even the typically loyal pages of the right-wing press.
But Mr. Johnson (whose reputation for not just surviving career-ending controversies but thriving on them has earned him nicknames like “Teflon Johnson,” “Houdini” and, less flatteringly, “the greased piglet”) has coasted through the turbulence. Engulfed in scandal, unassailably popular — this has always been the essence of brand Boris. In his testimony, Mr. Cummings recalled complaining to Mr. Johnson that the handling of the pandemic was “chaos.” “Chaos isn’t that bad,” the prime minister replied, according to Mr. Cummings. “Chaos means that everyone has to look to me to see who’s in charge.”
The chaos may suit Mr. Johnson, but for Britain it has been devastating. The ultimate proof of the prime minister’s failings during the pandemic lies not with Mr. Cummings but in the concrete numbers: Mr. Johnson has led Britain to one of the highest Covid death rates in the world, overseen one the worst economic downturns in the Group of 7 and imposed the third-strictest lockdown globally. The success of the nation’s vaccination program — Britain has delivered more doses than any other country in Europe — has let Mr. Johnson reframe this tragedy as a triumph. But for tens of thousands of grieving families, it comes as little consolation.
Yet for all the specific peculiarities of Mr. Johnson’s persona — a dizzying blend of deception, bravado and self-deprecation — the jarring dissonance that defines his government, at once electorally successful and socially destructive, is not particular to the current prime minister. In many ways, it is the story of the modern Conservative Party. The party’s founding promise, laid down in Robert Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto in 1834, was to stop Britain from becoming a “perpetual vortex of agitation.” Since the Conservatives regained power in 2010, Britain has become just that, with two referendums, three prime ministers and four general elections.
The Conservatives have flourished in these conditions, winning each general election since 2010 with a larger share of the vote than the last. But the spoils of victory have not been widely shared. Wages have not risen against inflation for the longest period since the Napoleonic era, a third of children now grow up in poverty, and state welfare is now one of the stingiest in the developed world.
In Cornwall, where Mr. Johnson will host the Group of 7 leaders in a boutique seaside hotel, Britain’s social and economic misery is plain for all to see. In 2008, Cornwall was one of three areas in the United Kingdom to suffer among the worst levels of deprivation in Europe; now it is one of seven. And the number of neighborhoods in Cornwall that rank among the most deprived in England has more than doubled since 2010. Across the country, Tory rule has coincided with a coarsening of living conditions.
Still, the Conservatives swagger on, unperturbed, maybe even energized, by the chaos and deprivation around them. The vote to leave the European Union in 2016 — led, opportunistically, by Mr. Johnson — reconfigured the electoral map and rejuvenated the Conservative Party. Brexit’s “Year Zero” effect, as one Conservative minister put it, allowed the party to reinvent itself as an anti-establishment force, while retaining its wealthy backers, and to tap into the dreams and anxieties of English nationalism more persuasively.
Despite all the havoc the Conservatives have caused, the party is in a stronger position than ever. And Mr. Johnson — the man who seems only ever to fail upward, blundering from one success to the next — is at its beating heart. His fellow leaders, few of whom possess comparable security, may well look on enviously.
Samuel Earle (@swajcmanearle) is a British journalist.
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