Labour will try all it can to bring up the subject at every opportunity; as will a few backbench MPs. But partygate just doesn’t feel likely to prove fatal to Boris Johnson anymore. War in Ukraine has changed the dynamic: fussing over lockdown parties seems trivial and out of date. Keir Starmer’s continued plugging away on the matter makes him look even duller than normal. Rishi Sunak’s stock has plummeted after what many saw as a bungled spring statement.
But if Boris Johnson does stage a revival, the figure he will have most to thank is Volodymyr Zelensky. The Ukrainian President has made it quite clear on more than one occasion that he regards the British PM as a more helpful, more reliable ally than other European leaders. In an interview with the Economist this week he said that ‘Britain is definitely on our side. It is not performing a balancing act’. This was in direct contrast to Macron’s France, which he suggested was ‘afraid of Russia’. Such an endorsement from a foreign leader who is fighting for his country’s life is invaluable. Dumping Johnson now would leave the rest of the world as bewildered as it did when Mrs Thatcher was dethroned just after the end of the Cold War and on the eve of the first Gulf War (not that her overseas image saved her, of course).
But there is another way in which Zelensky has helped Johnson – and this one quite inadvertently. He has shown how it is possible for a clown to evolve into a serious political leader. That has always been Johnson’s Achilles’ heel: the perception that he is not a serious figure, and sees life as a big joke. That perception was especially harmful during the pandemic when of course it was very easy to portray every bad decision as a matter of life and death.
If Johnson’s past career can be said to have elements of frivolity, it is nothing compared with that of Zelensky. Johnson may have made gags and used colourful language throughout his twin careers in politics and journalism, but he has not – as yet – appeared on prime time TV in a sketch apparently playing the piano with his penis. Zelensky did just that in 2016 – and you can still watch it on YouTube.
Zelensky went on to play a Ukrainian president in a TV comedy, giving ammunition to critics who complained that his political career was a jape, an extension of his entertainment career. Such accusations dogged him up to the eve of the Russian invasion. But they no longer dog him now. Rather it has become fashionable to say that his skills as a comedian – in particular his ability to engage an audience – have proved just what is required in a war that is being fought partly on social media.
As a result, it is no longer possible to denounce Boris Johnson as unfit for office on account of jokey remarks he might have made in the past, or any other kind of frivolity in his past career. What matters is the decisions he makes now. The Zelensky factor has disarmed Keir Starmer’s po-faced, lawyerly attacks on the Prime Minister – and made it much easier for Johnson to survive.
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