Is the jig up for Boris Johnson? The consensus of the wise seems to think it’s looking likely. He has been described as “losing his grip”, “shambolic and chaotic”, “incompetent”, “like Napoleon after the Battle of Waterloo – a defeated figure”.
A speech he made on Monday to a group of business people was likened to a confused old party on the brink of dementia – not a 57-year-old who should be in his mental prime. He muddled up his papers, lost track of his thread for about 20 seconds and rambled away in a variety of directions, some quite eccentric.
He compared himself to Moses at Mount Sinai; made vroom-vroom noises as he likened electric vehicles to Ferraris; referred to Lenin’s electrification of the Soviet Union and invoked the story book character Peppa Pig, who lives in a land with “safe streets and discipline in schools”.
Johnson is a man beset by a sea of troubles. His backbenchers are rebelling against him for the unsatisfactory handling of social care arrangements. His ratings are down with the general public after reports of financial sleaze. His approval rating was 64pc in September and is just 29pc now.
There is much public anxiety about the influx of migrants and asylum-seekers coming across the English Channel – more than 24,000 already this year, and only five of their number returned to France (although, at a local level in Kent, there is human sympathy for these poor people).
The Northern Ireland Protocol still isn’t fixed, even if there does seem to be a dialling down of the adversarial rhetoric. That has been helped by calming words from Micheál Martin, as well as American warnings to the UK and the EU against allowing the problem to damage the Good Friday Agreement.
And then, there is always the problem of Boris’s character, so often described as mendacious, feckless, irresponsible, over-promising and under-delivering, bombastic, inconsistent and unreliable. And that’s even leaving aside his personal life of three marriages and numerous children, in and out of marriage.
Yet for all these negatives, Bojo has his supporters. He is still reckoned to be the second-most popular Conservative prime minister ever (after Margaret Thatcher) and has very high “brand recognition” among the public.
Perverse as it seems, some people like Boris because of his shortcomings and shambolic lifestyle, rather than in spite of them.
I have a close Irish friend in London – an eminently sensible woman, and a successful school teacher – who won’t hear a word against him. For her, Boris is the naughty, scruffy schoolboy who is always late with his homework and is generally a mess and yet has a beguiling charm and a quick, cheeky wit.
She just “can’t help liking him”, and for her his errors and failings are explained by his background.
He was one of a large family, grew up with warring parents and moved home 32 times before he was 14, but got to Eton via a scholarship.
His rackety life is put down to his dysfunctional background (only last week, a Conservative female MP, Caroline Nokes, accused his father, Stanley, of “groping” her and smacking her on the bottom).
In those “red wall” working-class seats in the North of England, which only Boris could have won for the Tories, they also seem to like his shambolic act, his jokey, clownish way of dealing with issues (“I crashed the car” was how he explained his mishandling of the Owen Paterson sleaze case) and even his chaotic personal life. They can identify more with this kind of guy than with neat personalities like Theresa May or even the worthy, smooth-lawyer types like Keir Starmer.
Boris Johnson is certainly struggling, both with his backbenchers and his slide in the opinion polls. He is fiercely criticised for his many failings.
Yet there are some assets too. The economy is recovering, unemployment is down, Britain seems to be dealing with the pandemic better than many of the continental neighbours and the PM still has an 80-seat majority. Some of the bookies predict the Conservatives will remain in power for most of the 2020s – because of Boris Johnson’s flair for winning elections.
He still retains an inner circle of loyal consigliere, many from his journalistic days. Among them are Charles Moore, Toby Young, James Delingpole, Guto Harri and Michael Gove. Carrie, his young wife, seems to have made him more of a family man.
Besides, who would replace Boris? The most fancied contender is Rishi Sunak. He seems to have no personal faults: faithfully married (to an extremely rich wife), father of two, always immaculately presented, no scandal or gossip attached to his name. For my friend Helen, Boris’s defender, such perfection would somehow lack the human touch.