Comparing the after-effects of Covid-19 to fetlock injuries in horses, he said: “If you put a horse back to work when it’s injured, it will never recover.” Johnson “will stand down in six months”, Sir Humphrey was also reported to have suggested.
The summer season is the time for silly stories and the No 10 media machine responded with trenchant complaints of ‘‘balderdash and poppycock’’. The problem is, however, that the one-man electric dynamo does seem a little… flat!
As an increasing number of people around him, from within and beyond the Conservative Party, seem to have noticed: Johnson has lost his mojo. The zing, sparkle, whizz and pop that Johnson seemed able to sprinkle on almost all situations like the political equivalent of fairy dust seems to have deserted him.
Even The Spectator magazine, which he edited from 1999-2005, appears to have turned against him. ‘‘Where’s Boris?’’ Fraser Nelson asked last week before accusing him of presiding over ‘‘disorder, debacle, rebellion,U-turn and confusion’’.
In a separate article Toby Young, until now a faithful supporter of Johnson, wrote that he had ‘‘given up’’ on the Prime Minister and that he “should step down as soon as he’s got Brexit done”.
Even Johnson at his bubbling and bouncy best might have struggled not detect a hint of trouble in such statements. Deep down he’d probably even concede that the last few weeks have not been good.
Flip-flop and whiff-whaff combined with brinkmanship and backtracking have triumphed when what an increasing number of backbenchers and Cabinet members crave is stability and strategic direction.
Apparently Johnson feels over-burdened, underpaid and fed-up with the pressures of office. He has the upkeep of multiple houses to consider, not to mention the school and university fees of multiple children.
The back-slapping and joshing of the Bertie Wooster brand he so carefully crafted seems suddenly subdued and arguably replaced with a juvenile grumpiness.
And yet I can’t help thinking that there is something deeper going on. Could it be that the personal, political and psychological fault-lines that have formed part of Johnson’s DNA have somehow fused to reveal the inner weakness that always existed?
The reason I ask this question is that anyone who knows Johnson and understands the arc of his life, with all the scrapes and skirmishes, peccadilloes and predicaments in between, will tell you the same thing: (first) he is a funny man, with charm and charisma and a brain the size of a small planet; but (second) his career has been defined by ruthless ambition, a prevalence to boredom and a rather flexible relationship with the truth.
And maybe this is the problem. Politics is not a joke. It’s not all fun. Whether we like it or not, our politicians are charged with taking decisions that will shape your life, my life and those of your children and friends.
Johnson’s popularity was honed in the pages of GQ and on Have I Got News For You, he is a celebrity politician whose performance skills, whether it be hanging from a zip wire, falling into a river, rugby tackling a small boy or waving Cornish pasties, always somehow managed to distract attention from the real questions of the day. His legendary lack of attention to detail has always been his Achilles heel.
As such, the roots of this misery may well reflect the simple point that, love him or loathe him, Johnson has always been a populist politician. He wants to be everyone’s friend and for everyone to love him. But he’s reached a point where mere celebrity cannot veil the lack of statesmanship.
The heavy responsibilities of high office inevitably require politicians to sometimes make unpopular decisions. And yet this basic insight appears to be almost heretical to an individual who has built a life on the twin-track beliefs of (1) ‘‘the normal rules do not apply to me’’ and (2) ‘‘I can have my cake and eat it’’.
These beliefs have fallen upon the procrustean rocks of political reality and maybe, just maybe, Johnson might also come crashing down sooner than many people think.
Matthew Flinders is a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.
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