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The right-wing British pressed for their man to get into Number 10, and then lost him

The right-wing press were largely responsible for making Boris Johnson, and, when nemesis came, were similarly responsible. Raymond Snoddy analyses the rise and fall of Boris Johnson in the pages of those newspapers.

By Ray Snoddy

The right-wing British pressed for their man to get into Number 10, and then lost him

By any standards, Thursday 7 July was one of the most dramatic days in recent British political history, at least since the resignation of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. That morning, the Daily Mail, loyal to the last, reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson intended to ‘stare down’ the mutiny and was still insisting he would not give up ‘his mandate from 14 million voters’.

The Mail was so desperate to hold on to Johnson because its top editorial leadership remained convinced that he was the one most capable of beating Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in the next general election, despite Johnson’s accumulating baggage.

Later that morning, he resigned as leader of the Conservative Party, though not yet as Prime Minister, swept away by an unstoppable tide of Cabinet and ministerial resignations.

Our man lost it

The next morning, it was the Daily Mail which best summed up the instincts of the right-wing press which had been so instrumental in Johnson’s rise to power and his ability to hold on to Downing Street for nearly three years despite a succession of scandals that would have brought down any of his predecessors.

‘What the Hell Have They Done?’ was the Mail’s splash headline embellished with the implications of it all: “With a consoling hug from Carrie and Wilf, Boris is cast out by a party in the grip of collective hysteria. Keir Starmer is cock-a-hoop. Corks are popping in Brussels – and Moscow. And the Tories don’t have a clue who should replace him.” The paper attacked the ‘utterly duplicitous’ Nadhim Zahawi for accepting the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer one moment and telling Johnson to go the next, while the Mail on Sunday had its knives out for former Chancellor Rishi Sunak who led the spate of resignations. Other Conservative supporting newspapers such as The Sun and The Daily Telegraph allowed themselves to be more critical of Johnson’s endless unforced errors but were convinced he had still been a great Prime Minister because of the big calls he had got right, as they saw it – everything from delivering an 80-seat Conservative majority and ‘getting Brexit done’, to the Covid vaccine response and his enthusiastic support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion.

Our man is still our hero

Johnson may have been ‘flawed’ but, according to The Sun, was still ‘a giant figure in our nation’s story, the most significant politician since Margaret Thatcher’.

There was no mea maxima culpa, as he put it, either from Alister Heath, editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Johnson had been the right choice in 2019 because he saved Britain from Corbyn and the Remainers. The Prime Minister’s subsequent performance may have been ‘atrocious, delusional and indefensible’ as he used his Brexit triumph to impose ‘socialism and eco-extremism’ on the UK. Despite such failures, according to Heath, Johnson will be remembered as one of this country’s most consequential prime ministers.

Despite such instant certainties, Boris Johnson’s place in history will take some time to crystallise and is far from certain. Inquiries are still going on into whether he misled the House of Commons on multiple occasions and it is not impossible that he might yet be charged with the criminal offence of misdemeanour in public office.

An official inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic will almost certainly look at whether Johnson delayed action on lockdowns for too long and then lifted restrictions too early with fatal consequences. Then there is the £37 billion spent on what many saw as a failed Covid Test and Trace system, plus lucrative orders placed with donors to the Conservative Party often for defective equipment.

The claim that his finest achievement was ‘Getting Brexit Done’ could also face increasing scrutiny in the face of everything from a catastrophic 15 per cent drop in UK trade, and instability in Northern Ireland because of the border on the Irish sea Johnson vowed would never happen, to embarrassing queues at Britain’s ferry ports as French officials inevitably check and stamp passports of those coming from a non-EU country.

We made our man

The greatest irony of all is that the phenomenon that is Boris Johnson was largely created by the right-wing nationals, and that they were also responsible for nemesis when it arrived at last.

The Daily Telegraph is probably more guilty than any for ultimately smoothing Johnson’s path to 10 Downing Street. For years, the paper happily published ridiculous, or grossly exaggerated stories out of Brussels, from bent bananas, and the size of condoms in Italy, to a tale that the European Commission was going to build the world’s tallest building for its new headquarters and blow up the old one. Three decades later, the refurbished Berlaymont headquarters remain.

The Johnsonian Euro-sceptic stories were often followed up by the rest of the British popular press helping to create a culture of Euro-scepticism in the British public mind that, with the help of Nigel Farage and Ukip, helped to pave the way towards a Brexit referendum victory in 2016 and an election victory for Johnson in 2019. Sir Max Hastings, his editor at the time, was scathing about Johnson before the 2019 election and warned he was totally unsuited to be Prime Minister of this country. Sir Max predicted that a Johnson’s Premiership ‘would almost certainly reveal a contempt for the rules, precedent, order and stability’. After Johnson’s downfall, Sir Max added: ‘We have had government by clown and it is not funny.’

In recent years, the Daily Telegraph gave him a lucrative £265,000 a year perch as a columnist when he was out of office and supported not just his premiership but hailed his great achievement at ‘getting Brexit done’.

The party’s over for our man. Whip out

The writing was already on the wall over Partygate thanks to the reporting of the scandalous multiple breaches of lockdown restrictions in Downing Street, with pictures to prove it by Pippa Crerar of the Daily Mirror and Paul Brand of ITV.

Yet it looked as if Johnson was managing to shrug off the matter with just a single fixed penalty fine from the Metropolitan Police although polls showed that he had suffered huge reputational damage in the minds of the populace as a result.

It was Johnson’s handling of the curious case of the deputy chief whip Chris Pincher that proved a scandal too far. It was The Sun that broke the story of the pinching Pincher while the Mail on Sunday reported that Johnson had described the whip as ‘handsy, that’s a problem. Pincher by name Pincher by nature’, before promoting him to the whips office.

It was that promotion, and Johnson’s denial of any specific knowledge about Pincher’s behaviour beforehand, that ultimately caused his premiership to unravel.

The political history of these strange times will record that the coup de grace on that momentous Tuesday morning came in the form of a letter to the parliamentary commissioner for standards by Lord McDonald, the former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office who then put the story out on Twitter at 7.30am. The crossbench peer said it was untrue that no formal complaints had been made against Pincher. Complaints had been investigated and upheld. Crucially, Johnson had been briefed in person about the affair, blowing apart the Downing Street line that the prime minister had not been aware about ‘specific allegations’.

Lord McDonald then appeared on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme at 8.10 am, the time when most of the UK’s political class are listening. He explained calmly to Today presenter Nick Robinson exactly how he knew Johnson had been briefed in person by a senior Cabinet official: ‘because that official told me so at the time’.

Lord McDonald went on to explain why he had decided to go public on such a sensitive issue. “It is very unusual for a retired official to do what I have done this morning. I’ve done it by myself because what I’ve seen and read over the past few days, I knew to be wrong. It gets to the point where you have to do the right thing,” he said.

It was an electrifying moment in radio news and political history made all the more powerful because it was understated, unemotional and, for Johnson, dangerously precise.

Our man’s friends desert him

The trickle of resignations turned into a flood that swept Johnson’s premiership away within a few hours.

After the period of political mourning was over, the big problem for the owners of the right-wing newspapers and their web sites was who to back in the rather strange dual election system by which the Conservative party chooses its new leaders.

Now in the second stage where the 160,000 or so party members get to decide on the two candidates chosen by Conservative MPs where newspapers might have some influence on the outcome.

There is little detailed up-to-date information on what newspapers Conservative members read but it is likely that the paper of choice by a big margin is the Daily Telegraph, followed by the Daily Mail, The Times, and the Daily Express. In this middle class demographic, The Sun counts for very little.

Early on, the low tax Daily Mail started to let its preferences show in extensive coverage of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s claim to be ‘the unity candidate’ with the True Blue agenda, amid warnings that those involved should ‘forget Rishi’s jam tomorrow’ and listen instead to the Truss plea to help voters now.

The Times took a more analytical approach, warning on 23 July that while Truss may have captured the headlines with her promises of tax cuts, the public had a right to know why she has changed her mind so often on many important issues. Columnist James Forsyth argued that if the Tories wanted a genuine Thatcherite candidate it has to be Sunak.

Who will Murdoch anoint as our next man / woman?

Which way will Rupert Murdoch jump, or to be more precise where will he decide his best interests lie? The Sun will probably support the populist Truss although The Times may line up behind Sunak who would be the preference of many of its more fiscally conservative readers.

Unfortunately, at the beginning of August, as the ballot papers started arriving, the choice became more problematic for the newspaper proprietors when The Times reported that a private poll for the Truss camp found that the gap between the two candidates was narrowing with the foreign secretary now only five points ahead of Sunak with 9 per cent of Conservative members still undecided, though later polls suggested Truss was building on her lead. They may have to wait a little longer before identifying a winning bandwagon to jump on.

A summer devoted to the Conservative leadership campaign will, at least, give a breathing space to Sir Keir, cleared of any wrongdoing involving a beer and takeaway curry in Durham, and who has maintained a double-digit poll lead in recent months.

Once the right-wing press have got their new leader, they will turn their guns on the Labour leader and – for them – two new inviting targets.

As the blue-on-blue battle raged, Sir Keir committed a Labour government to end non-dom status, which will infuriate the non-dom right-wing newspaper proprietors, and to end charitable status for public schools.

When Boris Johnson’s premiership finally ends on 6 September British media politics could be about to get more vicious whoever emerges victorious from the Conservative leadership election.

This article is taken from the new book ‘Boris Johnson: Media Creation, Media Clown, Media Casualty?’, edited by John Mair with Andrew Beck and Paul Connew.