Pressure mounts as Britain tires of PM’s comedy of errors

Pressure mounts as Britain tires of PM’s comedy of errors

Pressure mounts as Britain tires of PM’s comedy of errors
The prime minister appeared groggy and dishevelled as he addressed the Confederation of British Industry last week. (File/AFP)
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Just two months after the defeat of Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill, the British leader whose stubborn stoicism helped to galvanize the war effort, was voted out of office. The British public, grateful to their prime minister for seeing them through the conflict, felt that a Labour government would be more suited to the reconstruction the country needed.

Churchill, despite his oratory, intellect and resoluteness, could be workshy, neglectful of details and impulsive — attributes that had come into their own during wartime, but did not lend themselves toward the steady administration of peacetime government.

Today, Boris Johnson, whose own eccentricity and spirit has led him to frequently draw parallels and even pen a biography of Churchill, finds his popularity wavering. The boom and bluster that invigorated his supporters through the challenges of Brexit and the global pandemic are increasingly found wanting as pressure mounts for his government to focus on conventional policy issues. 

The prime minister appeared groggy and dishevelled as he addressed the Confederation of British Industry last week. The organization is the leading business lobby and an important Conservative Party stakeholder group. Fumbling through notes, Johnson lost his place and read disjointed excerpts from the text of the speech. He proceeded to plug the gap with a bizarre review of his visit to a theme park dedicated to the children’s character Peppa Pig.

With a joke about the Muppet character Kermit the Frog to the UN General Assembly fresh in people’s minds, this week’s solecism was concerning. It was as if the character traits that had helped propel his career suddenly became handicaps. Johnson’s self-confidence seemed arrogant as he insisted on reading random chunks of his speech rather than draw it to a close, while his penchant for the anecdotal now seemed inappropriate at a time when the economy and business desperately need a show of confidence from the nation’s leader.

Johnson’s speech is the climax of a catalogue of failures, and follows a substantial rebellion over social care proposals, anger at the scaling back of rail improvements and a furor over the government’s failure to stop illegal migrants crossing the Channel

Zaid Balbagi

The exhortations to “build, build, build” and “level up” seemed as tired and lacking in the same way that the government’s “Hands, Face, Space” mantra struck many as aloof and ineffectual while the UK faced one of Europe’s highest pandemic death rates. 

As mayor of London, and earlier during his term as prime minister, Johnson would have smoothed over his shaky performance with humor or a grandiose announcement. However, much like his demeanour, it seems that his government, too, is exhausted. UK media have repeatedly quoted a government source who shared that “there is a lot of concern about the PM,” and added: “It’s just not working. Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes, otherwise it will keep getting worse.” The words have come to characterise attitudes toward No. 10.

Johnson’s speech is the climax of a catalogue of failures, and follows a substantial rebellion over social care proposals, anger at the scaling back of rail improvements and a furor over the government’s failure to stop illegal migrants crossing the Channel.

The prime minister himself has described his government’s responses to these crises as having “crashed the car into a ditch” — words that have added to nervousness among MPs from his own party. Criticism of Johnson, however, is lingering and as many as a dozen Tory MPs have since demanded his resignation.

In addition, several  backbenchers, tired of the prime minister’s comedy of errors, have submitted letters of no confidence to the chair of the powerful 1922 Committee, the parliamentary group of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons.

This week, Rishi Sunak, the prime minister’s photogenic and teetotal young chancellor of the exchequer, hosted an evening drinks reception at his adjoining residence, with about 50 MPs in attendance. No. 11 would deny that the gathering had any ambitions of toppling the PM, but it was a clear sign that Cabinet members have begun manoeuvring should Johnson no longer find a seat at the center of the table.

Though alarm bells will be ringing along all of Downing Street, Cabinet members and insiders are partially responsible for the malaise that has set in. This lackluster cohort of politicians lacks the expertise to thoroughly debate policy and less still to implement it.

Similarly, the cull of experienced and respected party members has left the government without anyone with the gravitas to rein in the PM and his more impulsive ideas. If Johnson fails to realize that his premiership would be empowered and not threatened by the appointment of a competent deputy, his government will continue to suffer from the perils of a lack of constructive criticism, as was so amply displayed over the last fortnight. 

Astonishingly, Dominic Raab, the deputy leader, reacted to recent events by saying that the PM is “on great form.” Such comments reflect the underwhelming performance of ministerial colleagues who owe their career progression to the prime minister.

As Europe grapples with a new wave of infections, Johnson will need to prove that he is still in control, especially since his colleagues cannot be relied on to tell him that he is fast losing the public’s trust.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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