'Is he lucky?' Napoleon demanded to know of one of his generals. When Sue Gray's partygate report is released in the coming hours, we'll soon find out if the luck Boris Johnson has enjoyed during his rise to the top continues. Given that Boris managed to escape from the Met police investigation into the festivities that played out in Downing Street during the pandemic with just a single fine, it seems unlikely the PM's luck is about to run out. It marks a miraculous turnaround from just a few months ago when it looked almost certain that partygate would bury Boris.
Yet Boris's detractors ignored one thing: time and time again throughout his switchback career in the media and politics he has been dismissed, written off, and counted out – only to bounce back like some monstrous rubber ball, stronger and more successful than ever. Scandals and setbacks that would have spelled the end of more conventional and duller careers have only served to boost Boris as he clambered to the very top of the greasy pole. There is no doubt that nature has endowed Boris Johnson with the luck that in Arabic is called ‘Baraka’.
Sacked from the Times, dismissed from the shadow cabinet – these are just two of the early milestones that marked Johnson’s stumbles on the nursery slopes of his ascent. But rather than fatal falls, these apparently lethal slips proved to be mere misdemeanours, to be brushed aside by their perpetrator as he picked himself up, dusted himself down, and returned to the fray.
As Boris became a serious contender for the leadership of the Tory party and the premiership itself, the pratfalls, mostly self inflicted, just kept coming. A transparently opportunistic leadership of the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum culminated in him being knifed by his chief lieutenant just when the crown seemed within his grasp. Falling upwards from this misstep he became Foreign Secretary, surviving multiple diplomatic faux pas to creatively resign at the right moment as Theresa May hit the buffers. At last the long desired prize of the premiership fell into his eager fingers.
All this was played out against a private life that can be charitably described as ‘colourful’. Moreover, Boris’s cavalier disregard for the rules had left a long list of enemies behind him. Lefties naturally detested this Old Etonian Tory toff, who had an unaccountable appeal to their former voters. But he was also disliked and distrusted by many within his own party and journalistic profession who had experienced him up close and personal – and remained bruised by the encounters.
The Johnson premiership soon gave his enemies their chance to bring his spectacular success to an inglorious end. Although his promise to ‘get Brexit done’ cut a swathe through Labour’s crumbling Red Wall and delivered the biggest Tory majority in decades, ‘events, dear boy’ soon conspired to trip him up. Fortune seemed to smile on him yet again when he narrowly survived his own brush with Covid, but the pandemic brought in its train massive economic and social woes that left his government floundering.
A deluge of disasters descended on Boris’s tousled head: accusations of corruption, incompetent and unnecessary lockdowns, charges of dodgy donations to decorate his Downing Street flat, departures from his staff that made Donald Trump’s administration seem a model of stability, an embarrassing ministerial resignation, the Owen Paterson affair, Pestminster, by-election defeats, and the slow burning fuse of partygate finally exploding as the nation emerged from the pandemic.
Then, just as it looked certain that Boris’s days in Downing Street were numbered, and his army of foes were gleefully sharpening their daggers, an unlikely saviour rode to his rescue: Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. The Prime Minister’s rapid response to the attack and his basking in the reflected glory of Ukrainian president Zelensky’s heroic resistance altered almost everything. In WB Yeats’ words: 'all changed, changed utterly.' Daggers were sheathed, letters from Tory MPs demanding a leadership challenge were hastily withdrawn, Sir Keir Starmer found himself grappling with his own Beergate problem, and Johnson, striding the world stage, lived to fight another day.
If a week is a long time in politics, the two years that stretch ahead before Boris needs to face the voters again in an election are an eternity. And if nothing in politics really matters, how long will it be before the public’s rage over partygate abates, and other issues – above all the cost of living crisis – grabs their attention? It is still far too early to conclude that the luckiest man in politics has used up the last of his nine lives. For the moment Boris’s Baraka miraculously remains in place.