Fines, lies and chaos: recalling Boris Johnson’s time as PM

Fifty-seven of Johnson’s ministers resigned from his government in July to force him out of Downing Street

When Boris Johnson resigned as prime minister three-and-a-half months ago, some naively believed the most chaotic days of Conservative government were over. File photograph: PA Media

When Boris Johnson resigned as prime minister three-and-a-half months ago, some naively believed the most chaotic days of Conservative government were over. Compared with the six white-knuckle weeks of the Liz Truss project, however, the Johnson years may start to feel like the good old days of calm and order.

That is what the former prime minister seems to be hoping, at least, as he scrambles home from holidaying in the Caribbean, apparently in a an attempt to reclaim the keys to Downing Street.

So it may be worth recalling the reasons why no fewer than 57 of Johnson’s ministers resigned from his government in July to force him out of Downing Street, believing his leadership no longer tenable. Here is a reminder.

Lies, half-truths and misleading statements

Where to begin? Perhaps with his wallpaper. Johnson told the ministerial standards adviser, Lord Geidt, that he did not know who paid for the Downing Street renovation until it was reported in the press; it later emerged he had sent a message months earlier to the donor Lord Brownlow, asking for more money.

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Or with the cats of Kabul? As the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban, thousands of people were desperate to flee, but Johnson was accused of asking officials to prioritise the staff and pets of an animal welfare charity. He called it “complete nonsense”, but leaked emails suggested the opposite, and a whistleblower later said Johnson’s involvement in their evacuation was “widespread knowledge”.

He said he had not lied to the queen over advice to prorogue parliament that the supreme court later ruled unlawful. He denied having an affair with Jennifer Arcuri that she said had gone on for four years, and which the police ombudsman found everybody else certainly believed was happening at the time.

And it was another untruth that finally brought Johnson down — for the first time at least. When Chris Pincher stepped down as a government whip after being accused of groping two men, Downing Street said Johnson had not known about other allegations against Pincher when he had appointed him to the post. It then admitted he had.

Most pressingly for the time being, Johnson is still due to be examined next month by the Commons privileges committee over accusations that he lied to MPs over the Partygate scandal; if it finds against him, he could be suspended from parliament and even face a byelection in his marginal Uxbridge seat.

Parties, law-breaking and fines

So, those parties. All Covid guidance was followed completely at No 10, Johnson said again and again — in parliament, on television and to the families of the hundreds of thousands who died. He was “sickened and furious” when footage emerged of staff joking about covering up a party, saying: “I certainly broke no rules.”

Yet evidence emerged of repeated, blatant rule-breaking events at Downing Street — leaving dos, birthday gatherings, a Christmas quiz, a rumoured party in which Abba blasted from Johnson’s personal flat, even two parties inside No 10 the night before Prince Philip’s funeral.

After a number of investigations, including by the Metropolitan police, Johnson left office as the first prime minister to be criminally sanctioned in office; Rishi Sunak, incidentally, was also fined.

A copy of the Sun newspaper featuring Boris Johnson lies outside 10 Downing Street on October 21st, 2022. Photograph: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

PPE and ‘VIP lanes’

At the peak of the pandemic, the Johnson government’s response to a desperate shortage of equipment was to ignore offers from established PPE suppliers in favour of a “VIP lane” by which friends and associates of senior Tories received preferential consideration in the supplying of contracts.

A New York Times analysis of 1,200 UK government contracts that were made public found that about half were handed out to VIP lane outfits, many of which had no prior experience of making PPE.

One firm, PestFix, was referred into the VIP lane after its chairman contacted the department of health saying he had recently attended the 80th birthday party of the government procurement director’s father-in-law. The company’s gowns and FFP2 masks later proved unsuitable for use in the NHS, while its FFP3 masks failed testing.

The high court has since ruled that the VIP lane was illegal.

‘Unfit for office …’

When Johnson moved into Downing Street, his choice as his closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, had already been found in contempt of parliament for refusing to appear before a select committee. When, at the peak of the Covid lockdown, Cummings drove with his family to Durham while ill with Covid, Johnson vociferously backed him, enraging a public that had been diligently following the rules and burning through most of the government’s authority to impose further restrictions.

After their relationship soured and Cummings left Downing Street, Johnson’s former ally turned to undermining the-then prime minister, declaring him “unfit for office” and a “complete f**kwit”.

Another decision to defend a close colleague was almost as damaging, when Owen Paterson was found by the parliamentary commissioner to have committed an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, designed to prevent corruption. Rather than allow him to be suspended, as the regulations demanded, Johnson backed Paterson, ignored the rules — then attempted to have the rules abolished altogether.

Paterson’s eventual resignation amid the resulting outcry led to his seat falling to the Lib Dems in an emphatic collapse of the Conservative vote.

Boris Johnson (centre right) and his wife Carrie wave goodbye to friends and staff as they leave Downing Street on September 6th, 2022, before heading to Balmoral to tender his resignation. Photograph: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Competence, U-turns and other humiliations

Tracking Covid was of course an enormous challenge, which no government could be expected meet perfectly. The astonishing scale of the failure of Johnson’s test-and-trace system, however, is truly boggling — it cost the equivalent of a fifth of the entire NHS England budget yet made “no measurable difference” to the impact of the pandemic, MPs found.

Johnson appointed Gavin Williamson as his education secretary and kept him in place through successive screw-ups that led students, universities and schools to scramble to keep up with repeated government failures and U-turns (he later rewarded Williamson with a knighthood).

He negotiated an EU trade deal that was so “fantastic” that even before the latest financial slump was estimated to have cost the UK £100 billion (€113 billion) a year in lost economic output, and signed up to arrangements on Northern Ireland that the government has desperately been trying to get out of ever since.

Johnson also presided over a collapse in supply chains that led to huge queues outside petrol stations, while the calamitous military exit from Kabul was described by MPs on his own side as Britain’s “biggest humiliation since Suez”.

Covid response

Johnson has been relentless in taking credit for the vaccine rollout. But it is worth recalling Johnson’s initial response to the spread of the coronavirus in early 2020: ambivalence. He missed a series of Cobra meetings as scientists began sounding the alarm. He was late to follow basic advice on shaking hands, and embraced an early strategy to aim for herd immunity, a tactic about which MPs were later scathing.

The initial lockdown was enforced weeks later than some scientists advised, costing up to 20,000 extra lives. Hospitals were woefully short of protective equipment, exposing medical staff to enormous personal risk.

Perhaps most scandalously, a stated ambition to throw a “protective ring” around care homes in fact resulted in untested elderly Covid patients being discharged into residential homes, causing a devastating toll of “many thousands” of avoidable deaths.

“Let the bodies pile high in their thousands,” Johnson reportedly said at one point, according to a number of sources. He denies it. — Guardian