LONDON — Boris Johnson operates by different rules to other politicians — or he will until he stops winning.
Ministers, and the prime minister himself, spent much of Monday fending off a claim that he had told colleagues to “let the bodies pile high in their thousands.” The explosive remark, which was briefed to the Daily Mail, BBC and ITV, allegedly occurred during a heated exchange in Downing Street over whether to introduce further coronavirus lockdown measures.
Such a remark, which is strongly denied by No. 10 Downing Street, would be fatal to most politicians. But whether the exchange happened or not, Johnson has shown a remarkable ability to escape similar verbal gaffes and insensitive remarks in the past, whether about single mothers, ethnic minorities, gay people or working-class men. If the accusation sticks, ahead of a key set of mid-term elections next week, the “bodies” comment threatens to do real political damage.
POLITICO has spoken to a former official, who says they heard the shouted exchange in Downing Street and has not spoken to any other media outlet. The prime minister was trying to underline his frustration at the serious public health and economic consequences of a third lockdown last year, according to the ex-official.
While out campaigning, Johnson denied he had made the remark when asked about it on Monday, saying: “No. The important thing that people want us to do as a government is make sure the lockdowns work and they have.”
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, told MPs: “The idea that he would say any such a thing I find incredible. I was in that room: I never heard language of that kind.”
That he is dealing with this accusation on the campaign trail while senior ministers are quizzed about it in the House of Commons is not the de-escalation No. 10 was hoping for after a bruising week of briefing and counter-briefing about leaks of Johnson’s text messages.
The BBC reported last week that he had assured the businessman James Dyson “I will fix it” after the billionaire inventor raised concerns about tax arrangements for his staff. Downing Street sources accused Dominic Cummings — formerly Johnson’s closest aide — of leaking the correspondence.
Cummings denied the claim in an explosive blog post published late Friday, in which he piled on allegations of impropriety, including a claim that Johnson planned to use money from covert party donors to refurbish the Downing Street apartment where he and his fiancée live. Cummings laid into his former boss for “falling so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.”
Add to this the successive allegations of irregularities or corruption in government procurement and informal lobbying of multiple ministers by former Prime Minister David Cameron and most governments would be dreading a key electoral test in the form of local council and mayoral elections next week, a well as ballots for the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament.
But if any politician could hope to weather these ill winds, it is Johnson. From his two terms as London mayor to leader of the Conservative Party and deliverer of their largest parliamentary majority since 1979, whenever he has run, he has won — despite widespread coverage of his past remarks. Fellow Tories might cringe, but while Johnson remains an electoral asset most have stuck by him.
Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said: “He shrugs off stuff that would leave other politicians flat out on the canvas.” A Cabinet minister who acknowledged that Johnson comes with “baggage” added, “but it’s worth the pain, isn’t it?”
He may also be insulated by the fact that the various scandals swirling around No. 10 at the moment have not penetrated that deeply outside the Westminster bubble so far. Polling by Yonder Consulting found only 5 percent of respondents named lobbying as their most noticed story last week and 9 percent the week before.
Still, the Tories’ lead over the opposition Labour party may not be rock solid. An Ipsos MORI poll on Monday showed the Conservatives falling back 5 percentage points (though the fieldwork was carried out before the leak of Johnson’s texts and is against the grain of other polls showing a clearer Tory lead).
Voters are also generally pleased with the government’s delivery of the U.K.’s vaccine program, a far more pressing concern than a Tory civil war or procurement processes.
However, the government cannot rely on the toxic briefing by former aides or officials flying under the radar forever. Chris Curtis, pollster at Opinium, warned: “Chaos and bad headlines are in themselves bad things if they’re around for too long. It isn’t necessarily going to cause long-term damage, but the point is it can make people go ‘bloody Tories again’ at a crucial time in the run-up to the local elections.”
There is an impact inside government as well. One former Downing Street adviser said the drip-drip of stories about sleaze, leaks and grudges was bound to be “deeply demoralising” for people who should be focusing their energies on delivering policy.
There are two risk factors that could yet destabilize Johnson. One is the number and variety of lobbying inquiries that are underway. Simon Case, head of the civil service, revealed on Monday that he has been asked to carry out a separate review of funding arrangements for refurbishing the No 10 flat. Each new evidence session and report will give fresh legs to accusations of impropriety and propel them forward in the news cycle.
The second is that the row over who paid to redecorate the No 10 flat, which is the most easily understood of all the sleaze headlines to date, captures the public imagination and begins to stick. But it is hard to predict whether that will take hold.
As Cowley observed: “Almost none of this stuff matters — until the point at which it does.”