Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (file photo). Photograph:( Reuters )
Britons don't know whether the prime minister can save himself, let alone Christmas
During the Covid pandemic, we Britons have developed a tabloid obsession with “saving Christmas,” as if it were a beloved pet in danger of being run over.
Yet our Christmas is indeed in peril. The Omicron coronavirus variant, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson said could lead to a “tidal wave” of cases, threatens to upend people’s best-laid festive plans. After last year, when the government imposed restrictions on household mixing on the cusp of Christmas, the possibility of yet another fractured Yuletide is close to retraumatizing the nation.
Ominously, the Christmas tree the Norwegians give us every year to stand in Trafalgar Square, in thanks for Britain’s help during World War II, is notably spindly and bare this winter.
To make matters worse, our responsible queen has been unwell. A royal biographer described her as entering a new phase, as if she were developing an obsession with goth aesthetics. And amid it all, Mr. Johnson’s government has sunk to new lows of corruption, sleaze and shrugging incompetence. The mood is far from merry.
It was very different earlier in the year. The government rolled out vaccines faster than any other country in Europe, and Britain hosted the Group of 7 meeting and a global climate summit in November. Any adverse effects of Brexit could be blamed on the pandemic. Things felt shinier for a while, especially if you didn’t look too closely at the rising child poverty figures or the government’s plans to curtail protest, criminalize refugees and exert more control over the judiciary.
But winter is here. New restrictions, called Plan B, are being rolled out. People in England are advised to work from home, and masks and Covid passes will be mandatory in more places. The rules, as ever under Mr. Johnson, feel arbitrary and ill thought out. Work from home, but go to the pantomime; wear a mask in a taxi but not in a pub. And we don’t know what further restrictions will be imposed as Omicron spreads. The problem is: Will people follow them when it is likely that Mr. Johnson — if the past is any indication — will not?
After all, breaking restrictions is precisely what has landed him in trouble. In December last year, according to multiple sources, there was a party at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence. At the time, parties were forbidden, and people were dying of Covid-19 in hospitals all over Britain, denied the comfort of their loved ones. That parties should come back to haunt Mr. Johnson is ironic, since we liked him for his levity. But levity, in a time of pandemic, is less charming than it once was.
The details of the party have emerged inch by inch. Then last week, a video was leaked in which the prime minister’s advisers pondered how to answer media questions about the party. His spokeswoman Allegra Stratton, who has since resigned, giggled as she said, “This fictional party was a business meeting — and it was not socially distanced.”
They all laughed. And in that laughter, it was horribly clear that Mr. Johnson’s tendency to surround himself with the inexperienced and entitled leaves a vacuum where a functioning government should be. Ms. Stratton was hired to be the voice of his government and to give a daily briefing in the American style. In the end, only one was broadcast — and it was a rehearsal, a fake.
There is every sign that the spell Mr. Johnson cast over the country is cracking, that people are waking up to the truth of him. The latest polls show the Conservative Party sliding to second place while Mr. Johnson’s approval ratings continue their descent. It feels a long time since the elections in December 2019, when the country gave him an enormous majority of 80 seats.
In retrospect, the election campaign was explicitly romantic. Mr. Johnson’s highest-profile campaign advert was a parody of a scene from the film “Love Actually,” in which a man stands outside a married woman’s home and tells her, using written signs, that he loves her. (Yes, it’s creepy.) The signs in the ad were Brexit-related — “With any luck, by next year we’ll have Brexit done” — but the meaning was clear. Mr. Johnson was a lover, and the country was seduced.
Infatuations die hard but fast. Now two-thirds of the country does not trust him, and half thinks he should resign. The mood in his Conservative Party is, according to one member, “sulfurous.” Even cabinet ministers believe he has imposed Plan B to distract from the “party crisis.” Many Conservative legislators, furious at the prime minister, are planning to oppose the new restrictions. A local election on Thursday, caused by the resignation of a corrupt legislator Mr. Johnson had disastrously tried to save, might suggest how alienated Conservative voters are.
Elsewhere, allegations of corruption continue to mount. There is a long-brewing scandal over the funding of the renovation of Mr. Johnson’s flat on Downing Street. (The redecoration was predictably garish.) Last week the Electoral Commission fined the Conservative Party 17,800 pounds, or about $23,500, for not accurately reporting the donations that paid for the refurbishment — and the government standards adviser is reportedly considering resigning after apparently being misled by Mr. Johnson.
If it all seems trivial, then so is Mr. Johnson. The country faces serious problems — not just the pandemic and the fallout from Brexit but also an energy crisis, economic stagnation and vertiginous inflation. There is no sign that the prime minister can see, much less solve, them. A brinkman seeing how far he can go, he is too preoccupied with his survival. His address to the nation on Sunday night was a tellingly tired, perfunctory affair. It could have been an email.
As we watch Mr. Johnson’s narrative play out, Britain feels like a country put on hold. We don’t know whether the prime minister can save himself, let alone Christmas.