Boris Johnson’s honeymoon with voters to soon end over pandemic response – Andrew Vine

IT’S a safe bet that our newlywed Prime Minister’s marriage at the weekend will be, by a very long chalk, the best thing that happens to him for the foreseeable future.

Boris Johnson in the Downing Street garden after he married his partner Carrie Symonds in Westminster Cathedral.

That’s because there are problems piling up for Boris Johnson wherever he chooses to look. And all of them have at their heart the question which has followed him for years – is he trustworthy?

Doubts about that have been the one constant in his career ever since he was fired from his first proper job as a journalist for, to put it charitably, bending the truth.

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Those doubts have even been acknowledged by Mr Johnson’s own allies, with the suggestion they might even be part of his appeal to voters, who know he’s a bit of a rogue but are prepared to put up with that because he understands their concerns.

Pressure is growing on Boris Johnson over the handling of the Covid pandemic.

But a public willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt might be wearing thin. One opinion poll at the weekend suggested his approval rating had plummeted and the gap between the Conservatives and Labour had narrowed.

The reason for that was the allegations about Mr Johnson’s conduct and competence that were hurled with such force at him last week by his former right-hand-man Dominic Cummings, who levelled the stinging accusation that he is not fit to be Prime Minister.

The claims have still not been satisfactorily addressed and are simply not going away. There may be more to come, and it remains to be seen what proof Mr Cummings can produce to back up what he said, particularly about Mr Johnson allegedly saying he would rather see bodies pile up than lock the country down.

And as tens of thousands of grieving families know only too well, the full story of the catastrophe that engulfed care homes as patients were sent to them from hospital without being tested for Covid has yet to unfold.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock remains under fire over care home policy at the outset of the Covid pandemic.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock ducked questions about that after being accused by Mr Cummings of misleading the Prime Minister about the testing of residents.

Meanwhile the former Chief Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal has commissioned a legal team to look into the question of whether corporate manslaughter charges could be brought against Mr Hancock’s department over the issue. Mr Afzal has called what happened “nothing short of a massacre” and there will be many relatives of frail elderly residents lost to Covid who agree with him.

Though Mr Johnson will seek to shift blame onto his Health Secretary over what happened, that really won’t wash. The Prime Minister was – and remains – the face of the Government’s response to the crisis. He told the country to stay at home and banned families from mixing. He effectively imprisoned older people in their homes, then lifted last year’s restrictions too early, allowing Covid to surge back with a vengeance.

The buck stops with Mr Johnson, and it is hard to see the public swallowing any attempt to say he was let down by subordinates, especially since he favours a presidential style of leadership that presents him as firmly in charge.

Nor is the outlook on Covid quite as optimistic as it was, despite the outstanding success of vaccinations. With a surging variant making ever more people ill – albeit mostly those who have not yet had jabs, or refused them – Mr Johnson’s hope of boosting national spirits, and his own popularity, by lifting all restrictions 20 days from today hangs in the balance.

When trust in a Government – or a Prime Minister – is eroded, voters are unforgiving. As a student of history, Mr Johnson will be only too aware of what happened to John Major’s administration in the mid-1990s when public trust in it collapsed as it floundered amid incompetence and sleaze.

The difference between then and now is that Labour looked like a credible Government-in-waiting, with a dynamic leader in Tony Blair, detailed policies and an impressive front-bench team that included Gordon Brown, David Blunkett and Robin Cook.

Mr Johnson can breathe a sigh of 
relief that there is nothing like the same threat from the Opposition benches, 
with Sir Keir Starmer struggling to make much impression, and a policy programme that is too vague for the public to embrace.

But if Labour gets its act together, and starts really pressing Mr Johnson on the Dominic Cummings allegations, there is every reason to suppose the public will start to take notice.

Mistakes were always going to be made in the handling of a health emergency unprecedented in modern times, and voters will allow for that, provided decisions were taken honestly and they have been told the truth about what happened. What they won’t put up with is finding that a leader in whom they placed their trust was unworthy of it.

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