World·Analysis

Boris Johnson's scandals undermine U.K.'s reputation abroad during diplomatic push

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trip to Ukraine on Tuesday had little chance of being portrayed as anything other than a flight from his domestic woes — and potentially an ill-judged one.

British PM's hard stance on crisis between Ukraine and Russia overshadowed by 'Partygate'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is shown during a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Tuesday. Critics say Johnson's increasingly tough talk on Ukraine has been overshadowed by the 'Partygate' scandal at home. (Peter Nicholls/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

One of the most cutting cartoons reflecting the trials and tribulations of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was published by the Guardian newspaper just ahead of his diplomatic push on the crisis between Russia and Ukraine this week.

The sketch by Nicola Jennings shows a big bear-like figure staring out at a snowy no man's land, dressed in furry white camouflage, with a telltale shock of blond hair sticking out, and a bottle of wine hanging loosely from one hand. An abandoned party hat and a cake lie in the snow next to a broken glass, more bottles and a sign pointing toward Ukraine.

The caption reads: "Boris to the rescue."

Set against the backdrop of his "Partygate" scandal, Johnson's trip to Ukraine on Tuesday had little chance of being portrayed as anything other than a flight from his domestic woes — and potentially an ill-judged one.

Especially after he postponed a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday so he could try to convince his own MPs that he hadn't in fact misled Parliament in denying parties took place or that lockdown rules had been broken.

The ongoing scandal has so consumed the political classes and enraged the public that Johnson's critics and supporters alike worry it is undermining Britain's ability to function properly at home and its reputation abroad, not least the notion of a new "Global Britain" post-Brexit.

Johnson, left, takes part in a joint news conference with Zelensky in Kyiv on Tuesday. For many, the British prime minister's trip was an attempt to distance himself from his domestic woes. (Peter Nicholls/Pool/The Associated Press)

In a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, broadcast live Tuesday, the BBC's diplomatic correspondent James Landale lobbed a question, asking Johnson if his premiership was secure.

"And on the issue of Ukraine," he followed up, "why should the international community take your diplomacy seriously when you are so preoccupied at home? When you put talking to MPs ahead of talking to President Putin?"

4 top aides resign Thursday

Britain's Metropolitan Police have been investigating 12 gatherings at Downing Street that are alleged to have broken the country's lockdown rules over the past two years, including one in the prime minister's private flat.

They included a bring-your-own booze garden party in May 2020, when Britons were limited to seeing only one other person outside their bubble, and an alcohol-laden suitcase being wheeled into Downing Street for two parties held there on the eve of Prince Philip's funeral last year.

On Thursday, four of his senior aides offered their resignations, and had them accepted, including principal private secretary Martin Reynolds. It was Reynolds who sent the invite to about 100 people for the BYOB garden party at 10 Downing Street in May 2020. Some 30 people are said to have attended.

IN PHOTOS | 4 of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's aides resign:

Johnson's supporters are holding it as proof the prime minister means what he says about changing the Downing Street culture, but critics accuse him of scapegoating his own people.

One of the resignations, by longtime policy chief Munira Mirza, came with public criticism of Johnson's refusal to heed her advice and apologize for a widely condemned and unsubstantiated slur against Labour Opposition Leader Keir Starmer during an exchange in Parliament on Monday. 

The pointed nature of Mirza's departure is seen by some as a clear indication that Johnson himself is the problem.

Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College London, says it's not fair to dismiss Johnson's increasingly tough talk on Ukraine in recent weeks as a diversionary tactic. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been overshadowed.

"The U.K. has acted quite decisively, particularly compared with some European states, which send very few troops," he said. "We send munitions. Language has been quite tough on Russia and a possibility of a Russian invasion on Ukraine.

"What's been interesting is how little this has been noticed because the pantomime [over parties] has swept everything else off our screens and out of our newspapers," said Menon.

The U.K. isn't unique when it comes to becoming obsessed with its own political crises, Menon added.

"But I think it's absolutely fair to say that this needs to be dealt with and put behind us as soon as possible. Otherwise, it will start to impact on our reputation as a country and our ability to do things."

WATCH | Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tough words for Russia's Vladimir Putin:

Ukraine’s allies prepare for worst of possible Russian invasion

5 months ago
Duration 1:55
Ukraine’s allies continue to try to head off the threat of a possible Russian invasion, but some are also preparing for the worst.

Daily ridicule, anger

The question many are asking is if the government — or the country — can put it behind them with Johnson still at the helm.

Once dubbed the Teflon prime minister, his gaffs and prevarications tolerated, if not indulged, Johnson now finds himself the subject of near-daily ridicule, accusations of wrongdoing and the genuine anger of many Britons.

Partial findings of a report into the Downing Street parties prepared by senior civil servant Sue Gray, and commissioned in December by Johnson himself, were released on Monday. It investigated 16 gatherings at either 10 Downing Street or the cabinet office and found, among other things, "failures of leadership and judgment."

The full report has been delayed by a police decision to conduct their investigation into 12 of the 16 gatherings — a move that raised eyebrows after an initial refusal to investigate.

The delay didn't spare Johnson from a grilling by opposition MPs.

"Over the last two years, the British public have been asked to make the most heart-wrenching sacrifice," said Starmer, the Opposition leader.

"Funerals have been missed, dying relatives unvisited — every family has been marked by what we've been through.  And revelations of the Prime Minister's behaviour have forced us to rethink and relive those darkest moments."

WATCH | British Labour Leader Keir Starmer scolds Boris Johnson:

British opposition hammers PM ahead of 'partygate' report

5 months ago
Duration 2:37
British Labour Leader Keir Starmer scolded Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Parliament Wednesday for not taking seriously enough a police investigation into 'partygate' allegations of lockdown gatherings at the PM's home.

There was also considerable sting from members of Johnson's own bench, including from his predecessor, former prime minister Theresa May.

"So either my right honourable friend had not read the rules, did not understand what they meant and others around him, or they didn't think the rules applied to No. 10. Which was it?"

'A clown or completely untrustworthy'

It would take 15 per cent of Conservative MPs — 54 in all — to trigger a confidence vote in Johnson's leadership. So far, about a dozen have expressed publicly their desire for that to happen. But MPs can also send their desire for a vote to the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers anonymously, so it's difficult to gauge how serious the threat is for Johnson.

In an interview before the partial release of the Gray report, former Conservative MP and attorney general Dominic Grieve said Conservative MPs should consider the harm Johnson's behaviour is doing to the country.

"Firstly, it diverts attention from other policy issues. But I have to say, my own experience — and I have a pretty good range of contacts as a former attorney general and chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee —  is that our key allies regard Mr. Johnson either as a clown or as completely untrustworthy."

Former Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, pictured here in London on Nov. 26, 2019, says the Tories should consider the harm Johnson is doing to the country. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

At a briefing in Washington this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the state of U.S.-British relations against the backdrop of Johnson's domestic troubles.

Psaki told reporters she hadn't spoken about it with U.S. President Joe Biden but said she could reiterate his confidence in what she described as "the important partnership we have with the United Kingdom," especially in the face of the Russia crisis.

Dazzle and distract

Until recently, Johnson has enjoyed the support of his cabinet, mostly closing ranks around a man previously seen as their most valuable asset in landing the Conservatives a landslide 80-seat majority in the 2019 election.

Since Monday, Downing Street has made a concerted effort to reclaim the agenda, even getting Johnson out for photo opportunities at a port, walking around in a hard hat and high-vis jacket, and driving a bulldozer.

Long-promised policies on regional inequalities were introduced in Parliament, and a "Brexit freedom" bill to remove EU rules from British legislation was announced.

Johnson sits in the cab of a construction digger during a visit to Talbot Gateway in Blackpool, England, on Thursday. (Peter Byrne/Pool/The Associated Press)

"He wants to show that he's getting on with the business of government," said Aditya Chakrabortty, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper.

"And as you know, power creates its own reality. As long as you're still pulling all the levers, there's more stuff you can do. And Boris Johnson is a pretty frantic lever-puller when he wants to be, you know. He will cause all kinds of fuss."

Chakrabortty says it's akin to the Donald Trump playbook on how to dazzle and distract, something they call "throwing a dead cat on the table" — a strategy Johnson once wrote about in a newspaper column.

Anger cuts through the divide

The issue of lying, though, and whether or not Johnson knowingly misled Parliament, could still impact his future chances of survival. Britain's ministerial code states clearly that those found to have lied to Parliament should offer their resignation.

Johnson is still saying he can't respond to questions about the parties until the police have finished their investigation. His critics say he's clearly hoping people's outrage will fade, and that, in time, folks will be willing to welcome their old familiar friend — with a wink and a nudge and a few exaggerations — back into the fold.

But that's by no means a certainty.

The anger ordinary people feel over what's happened cuts across the deep divide left behind in Britain by the bitter debate over Brexit, said Menon. He points to a December poll that, for the first time, found a majority of leave supporters saying they didn't think Johnson was doing a good job.

"It's something, I think, more profound and different, particularly because it's in the context of this pandemic and what it's done to our society," Menon said.

Demonstrators hold placards as they protest near the House of Commons in London on Jan. 12, 2022. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

Chakraborrty agrees, saying it is significant that the broader public seems to have broken with Johnson.

"The thing that's giving it a particular force is that we're talking now about COVID, which has seen over 150,000 people die in the U.K.

"We're also seeing a really hard reminder that No. 10 were playing by the rules of one law for us, and another law for you. And that does tend to get the British public's goat.

"But the actual clues to the guy's character? They've been around for years. The guy is nearly touching 60. He's been around a long time."

For how much longer is the question.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

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