British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: WPA POOL/GETTY IMAGES/JACK HILL
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: WPA POOL/GETTY IMAGES/JACK HILL

London — Boris Johnson has always been prone to gaffes and controversy, but central to his gift as one of Britain’s most successful politicians was to read the public mood, at least among those he needed to propel him into power.

After a series of unforced errors by the prime minister and members of his government, there is growing disquiet within the ruling Conservatives over whether the man who scored such an emphatic election victory six months ago is still in sync with the nation and parts of his party.

Foreign minister Dominic Raab, who deputised for Johnson when his boss was admitted to intensive care with coronavirus in April, was pilloried on Thursday for confusing “taking the knee” as a symbol of subordination taken from television fantasy blockbuster Game of Thrones. His apparent ignorance of the Black Lives Matter movement compounded a week of missteps at an uncomfortable time.

Johnson’s administration was already under fire for its handling of Covid-19, trade talks with the EU and its attitude towards antiracism protesters calling for the country to look more critically at its colonial past.

The Bank of England apologised for the involvement of some of its former governors in the slave trade, as did two insurance companies and a pub chain. A college at Oxford University recommended the removal of a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes after years of criticism.

Churchill’s statue

The government, though, appears to be striking a different note. On Monday, Johnson responded to cries of anguish from Black Britons over racial inequality with an article saying he would resist the removal of the statue of Winston Churchill, the Conservative wartime leader, outside the Houses of Parliament “with every breath in my body”.

The monument, boarded up to protect it from vandalism, was a focal point of far-right groups at the weekend purportedly vowing to protect the country’s national heroes. Conservative parliamentarian Daniel Finkelstein said there was no “serious body of opinion” that wants it removed anyway.

A day later, Johnson was forced into a U-turn over funding for meals for England’s poorest children during the summer vacation after a social media campaign by 22-year-old Black soccer international Marcus Rashford. Yet perhaps more significantly, his own party’s legislators had threatened a rebellion.

Then MPs who rode the wave of Johnson’s popularity over Brexit to win seats in the poorer north of England were faced with explaining why it is a good idea to spend £900,000 on repainting Johnson’s plane, just as their districts face mass unemployment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The problem was pointed out to Johnson at a meeting with rank-and-file Conservative MPs on Wednesday afternoon. The prime minister faced “probing questions”, according to Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, a member of the executive of the influential 1922 committee of legislators.

“We are in a very serious situation and it’s important that backbenchers understand what is the prime minister’s thinking,” Clifton-Brown told BBC Radio.

Losing support

Johnson’s poll ratings have plunged as his government battles to contain the coronavirus pandemic, which has left the UK with the highest death toll in Europe. In the latest setback, he was forced to abandon an attempt to produce a “world beating” mobile phone app to track people in contact with the virus.

Part of the problem for Johnson is that many of the new intake of MPs, while giving him the biggest Conservative majority in parliament for more than three decades, have more loyalty to their districts than to their party.

Figures show that the “Red Wall” areas of the north that defected from Labour to the Conservatives have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus and stand to lose out the most economically. Ethnic minorities have also been hit harder by the pandemic, according to a government report.

Johnson has outlined a vision, which he is due to relaunch with a speech later in June, of “levelling up” poorer areas by investing in infrastructure and job creation programs.

Part of his message has also been to appeal to cultural values rather than policy and Johnson’s call to arms to defend Churchill’s statue may help to reinforce the idea that he is on the side of patriotic working class voters.

Tory MPs have borrowed language from across the Atlantic in their social media posts, branding opponents as “woke” and extremist, and Raab’s dismissal of taking the knee on Thursday seemed to fit the pattern.

His comments contrasted with the return of English Premier League soccer matches the day before after a 100-day coronavirus suspension. Players in the UK’s most-watched sport lined up on bended knee along with the referees.

“I take the knee for two people: the Queen and the missus when I asked her to marry me,” Raab said. “It feels to me like a symbol of subjugation and subordination, rather than one of liberation and emancipation.”

Bloomberg