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The ghost of Boris Johnson

The ghost of Boris Johnson

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Rishi Sunak has spent his first Christmas as prime minister. It’s been a tumultuous year which saw not one but two of his predecessors removed from office. But with some in the Conservative Party still viewing him as a pretender, there’s still a very real prospect of him being visited by the ghost of Boris Johnson.

Until the end of the year, the Sensemaker podcast is looking back at the biggest stories of 2022 and whether you like him or loathe him, over the past 12 months Boris Johnson has continued to define British politics.

So why do some people think he could continue to play an instrumental role in the year ahead?

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Boris Johnson started 2022 in the way 2021 had ended – under mounting pressure…

“Judged guilty of the most serious breaches of parliament’s lobbying rules, but now neither the Commons nor the voters will decide Owen Pateron’s fate. He has quit as an MP leaving chaos in his wake. Protesting his innocence to the end.”

ITV News

Owen Paterson had broken parliamentary lobbying rules and, in response, Boris Johnson asked his MPs to vote to pause judgement until the system for policing MPs behaviour could be overhauled. 

In other words, he wanted to protect Owen Paterson from punishment. 

“The ayes to the right 250. The noes to the left 232.”

Sky News

But within 24 hours, the prime minister u-turned. And Owen Paterson – rather than face a 30 day suspension – chose to resign.

It was a damning end to 2021 for Boris Johnson, with the integrity of his government having taken a real hit.

And it got worse.

As people were forced to cancel their Christmas plans because of a new Covid variant, stories started emerging that he’d presided over a culture of rule-breaking in government. 

His press secretary resigned after footage surfaced of her joking about a “wine and cheese party”. But there was more to come.

In January 2022, it emerged there had been a drinks gathering in the garden of 10 Downing Street during the first national lockdown. Reports followed of a birthday party thrown for Boris Johnson not long after his brush with Covid. 

“His wife Carrie surprised him with a cake and led a chorus of happy birthday.”

ITV News

Perhaps the most damaging event was the infamous “suitcase of wine” party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. 

Boris Johnson wasn’t there, but Downing Street was forced to apologise to the Queen for the behaviour of advisers and civil servants in his government. 

Sue Gray was put in charge of a Cabinet Office investigation into rule-breaking. Then the Metropolitan Police announced its own probe. 

“I welcome the Met’s decision to open its own investigation because I believe this will help to give the public the clarity it needs and help to draw a line under matters.”

Boris Johnson

It did give the public clarity.

“The prime minister Boris Johnson and the chancellor Rishi Sunak have both received fines from the police for breaking lockdown rules.”

BBC News

Several people who attended the suitcase-of-wine bash also got fines.

Sue Gray’s final report in May 2022 described multiple events, including excessive drinking and a lack of respect shown to cleaning and security staff. She concluded that senior politicians and civil servants “must bear responsibility for this culture”. Her report stopped short of naming any individual.  

Conservative MPs were – as they seemingly always are these days – divided. For some the inquiry was a political witch-hunt; for others, it was proof of Boris Johnson’s significant character flaws. 

There was evidence that the public mood was turning against Boris Johsnon as well. By June, the threshold for a confidence vote was formally reached. 

Boris Johnson won. He was bloodied but still in power and for the first time in a while it felt like he might survive. 

But it wasn’t to be.

“Chris Pincher has been one of the prime minister’s strongest backers in the House of Commons and Boris Johnson made him deputy chief whip responsible for MPs discipline, but last night he quit government after a drunken incident at a club.”

ITV News

Reports surfaced that deputy chief whip Chris Pincher had drunkenly groped two men. He resigned from government, but remained a Conservative MP.

A few days later it was alleged that previous concerns about Chris Pincher’s behaviour had been reported, and that Boris Johnson knew about them, but still gave him a job in his government.

The response was textbook; deny everything, and carry on regardless.  

But when a former senior Foreign Office official claimed the prime minister had been “briefed in person” about the allegations… the tensions that had been building all year finally erupted. 

A consensus formed: Boris Johnson had to go. 

***

“The herd instinct is powerful and when the herd moves it moves and my friends, in politics, nobody is remotely indispensable. And our brilliant and Darwinian system will produce another leader equally as committed to taking our country forward through tough times.”

Boris Johnson

The Conservative Party began searching for a new leader and prime minister.

Liz Truss was apparently Boris Johnson’s preferred successor, although the rumour at the time was that this was to enable him to pick up the pieces when it all went wrong. 

It’s just that no one expected it to be over so quickly…

“She rose to the highest office and then crashed from it in record time. Faster than any of her predecessors.”

BBC News

But when it did, Team Boris sprung back into action. 

Tortoise has been told that the WhatsApp group which exploded into life at that moment had 500 activists. Some are highly vocal; others less so, but it’s clear that Boris Johnson still commands strong support.

And that’s a problem for Rishi Sunak. 

Some blame him for Boris Johnson’s ultimate fall from power – although it was actually Sajid Javid who resigned first. 

Others see him as the Treasury’s man, someone who has had a gilded rise to power without the usual hurdles that can forge a stronger, more political, character. Simply put, many doubt he will rise to the challenges facing the party… that were at least partly caused by Boris Johnson. 

There are those who believe that Rishi Sunak might finally restore integrity and accountability to the heart of government. But even here, he is failing to grip the problem, having so far been unable to appoint an adviser on standards – one of his key pledges. 

But ultimately MPs are motivated by one thing: keeping their seat. And there are more than a handful who believe Rishi Sunak cannot save them from defeat. 

The prime minister now has roughly four months to prove them wrong. 

The local elections in early May will be the next line in the sand. 

The Conservatives will lose seats, but the scale of the loss could be a catalyst for change. 

As things stand, Boris Johnson is Rishi Sunak’s Ghost of Christmas Past; come the spring, he may be the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. 

This episode was written by Tortoise’s political editor Cat Neilan and mixed by Katie Gunning.