EU Referendum

Politics: in Putin's hands


In the scheme of things, probably the most important item on the news agenda is the Ukraine situation – some might even go far as to call it a crisis. That's what Reuters is calling it, regaling us with the news that the G7 is united in seeking to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine.

From what I can gather, this unity extends to every one of the "Group of Seven" richest democracies being determined to do absolutely everything needed to prevent a war, short of actually doing anything.

Nevertheless, Washington is sending its top diplomat for Europe, Assistant Secretary Karen Donfried, to Ukraine and Russia on 13-15 December to meet with senior government officials. He will "emphasise that we can make diplomatic progress on ending the conflict in the Donbass through implementation of the Minsk agreements in support of the Normandy Format", the US State Department said in a statement.

Beyond that, there is nothing very much more than anyone can do. The Russians have the initiative, and unless or until they make they make their move, there's little more to be said – or written. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the British media have focused on the drama closer to home - the life and (political) death of prime minister Johnson.

The Sunday Mirror, I guess, is the newspaper closest to wielding the fatal blow as it devotes its front page to a "new PM Xmas scandal", running a long headline reading: "Tinsel, Santa hats and bubbly as Boris hosted this Covid rule-breaking No10 Christmas quiz". This culminates in the assertion that he was "Taking us for fools (again)", in block capitals.

This is not one of the three parties which the media have been reporting but the strength of this piece by political editor Pippa Crerar, is that is has Johnson accused of personally breaking Covid laws on 15 December last year. He is pictured on-screen, sitting underneath a portrait of Margaret Thatcher, reading out questions. flanked by two members of his top team, one wearing a Santa hat and the other draped in tinsel.

London was then under Tier 2 regulations banning any social mixing between households – which Johnson appeared to have breached by mixing with the aides. Official guidance also stated: "You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier".

More detail is furnished by Crerar, sufficient to support a view that technical breaches of the regulations had occurred on a day when 459 people had died from coronavirus, while another 33,828 had been infected.

As might be expected, the papers are vying with each other to dig the dirt on Johnson, with Tim Shipman doing his bit for Queen and Country in The Sunday Times.

Shipman picks up on the dog days of 2020 when he writes that members of the No 10 press team met after work every Friday evening. Wine was opened, gallows humour shared. He tells of Jack Doyle, who was then deputy director of communications, "was in the habit of giving awards for those who had gone above and beyond the call of duty".

But, he writes, the 18 December was different. E-mails and WhatsApps were sent out by junior civil servants in the press team urging people to attend. One of Doyle's colleagues phoned special advisers in other departments to invite them.

About 40 people gathered in a foyer outside the main press office room. "Everyone was packed shoulder to shoulder", said one who attended. "If it looks like a party, sounds like a party, stinks of booze and goes on until 2am, it is a f***ing party".

Of Johnson's denial, the growing evidence that many present were "completely rat-arsed" has led to a hunt for other potential breaches of the rules, says Shipman. Those present say Johnson did not visit the Christmas gathering, although Cummings has pointed out that: "To get upstairs [to his flat] he has to walk past that area where he could see it".

Johnson, we are told, did turn up for two other events. On 13 November he gave a farewell speech for Lee Cain, who left No 10 with Cummings that day after losing a power struggle with the egregious Carrie. Closer to home, it is claimed that Carrie Johnson held a party for friends that night in their flat. This is emphatically denied by No 10 and by one person alleged to have attended.

Then, on November 27 Johnson gave a short speech at farewell drinks for Cleo Watson, his deputy chief of staff and a close friend of Cummings. But he did not stay long.

And that, it seems, is the extent of Shipman's "dirt". Whether it sticks, or not, there are already repercussions. This, the Observer makes clear with its headline: "Scientists fear falling trust in Boris Johnson could harm bid to curb Omicron surge". Researchers, we are told, say new rules may be needed to cut deaths, but there are concerns that "fed-up" people will ignore the government.

This is only to be expected, with senior behavioural experts warning that reports of Downing Street parties, where Covid rules were allegedly flouted last year, "have caused widespread anger and resentment".

"It is always more difficult to re-apply restrictions because people are fatigued and generally fed up", says Linda Bauld, a professor of public health at Edinburgh University. "But now it’s going to be even harder, because trust has been eroded to a very significant level. People are really fed up with the government. And if you don’t trust the government, why would you do what the government asked you to do?"

The Observer has Bauld saying that it was likely that far more people would flout rules if they were asked to limit numbers allowed indoors at one time, as happened last winter. "Many are likely to say: I'm fed up, I don't trust this government, and I want to see my friends and family, so I'm just going to ignore the rule".

Now, says Shipman, Johnson faces rebellion from 60 Tories and, after the unedifying farce of Partygate, even MPs who owe him their jobs are beginning to wonder what's next.

In Saturday's Times, though, Matthew Parris has no doubts about what's next. "The prime minister has been rumbled", he writes, "and for Johnson it's over". His concern, though, is that the Conservative Party might replace a charlatan with another sham. Someone decent needs to stand up and rid us of Johnson but they are "championing an empty vessel in Liz Truss".

Yet that battle is to come. For the moment, we are in the throes of the decline and fall. Even his old supporters are deserting him, with Janet Daly headlining her column with: "The collapse of trust can be traced to the fatal flaws in Boris Johnson’s personality". The latest crisis in No 10 is no fleeting embarrassment, she writes, but a game-changer that has stripped the PM of any remaining credibility.

In her text, she says: "I can't see any way out of this for Boris Johnson. The political crisis hinges entirely on his personality. His policy decisions are in question on the grounds that they may be a consequence of his own character flaws".

Yet, for all that, while all eyes are turning to North Shropshire, I don't think an immediate resolution can be taken for granted. For the Lib-Dems to take the seat would be a huge leap and, if the Tories keep it, Johnson may live to see another day or two, even if one long-time associate is predicting: "I think for the first time that it won't be him fighting the next election". Cummings said the “silent artillery of time” would do for Johnson, predicting: "He’s done, gone by this time next year, probably summer".

To prolong his active life though, the prime minister may be hoping that the Russians do make a move over the Christmas break – the ultimate "dead cat" which could divert attention from his troubles and focus minds on more serious issues. Ironically, for a fundamentally unserious man, Johnson's immediate fate could lie in the hands of a very serious man – Mr Vladimir Putin.

Also published on Turbulent Times.