Sinking without trace: rightwing press turns on Boris Johnson

“Where’s Boris?” asked this week’s Spectator, the weekly magazine the prime minister once edited and from which Johnson might once have expected a better press had it not been for the coronavirus crisis.

Dan Sabbagh

With a front cover image featuring a distant blond dot on a tiny boat bobbing rudderless and oarless on a stormy sea, the message of chaos and drift from the title was emphatic – a criticism of the prime minister’s leadership in the battle against the pandemic that is being replicated across an increasingly sceptical rightwing media.

“The question now is whether he can become a proper leader with a sense of direction and purpose,” said the magazine’s editor, Fraser Nelson, effectively arguing that Johnson’s premiership was at a crossroads, that a narrative was close to being set.

After a week in which Britain’s test-and-trace system – once intended by the prime minister to be “world-beating” – was at the point of collapse, Nelson asked “whether the pattern we have seen in recent months – of disorder, debacle, rebellion, U-turn and confusion – is what we should henceforth expect”.

Others writing in the same magazine put it more idiosyncratically. “What on earth happened to the freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character I voted for? Oliver Hardy has left the stage, replaced by Oliver Cromwell,” said columnist Toby Young, complaining of a “lack of engagement with the detail”.

Earlier on Thursday, the same day the Spectator cover emerged, the Daily Mail had reached a similar conclusion. “Boris: We’ve Failed” the front-page headline blared, with the paper claiming it had warned of a “looming test crisis five months ago”.

The rightwing tabloid highlighted Johnson’s subdued performance the day before in front of parliament’s liaison committee, where he had been forced to admit that “the short answer” was that there were nowhere near enough Covid tests available.

Only a week earlier, the prime minister talked optimistically about a “moonshot” plan to test millions of people a day as way to return to pre-coronavirus normality. Now he had humiliatingly been forced to admit there were nowhere near enough tests for worried parents at a level closer to 230,000 a day.

“Too often the government has over-promised and under-delivered,” concluded a leader in the Times on Friday morning. “Policies have had to be swiftly abandoned after the exposure of entirely predictable problems,” the centre-right broadsheet continued, adding the A-level fiasco and the problems with the contact-tracing app for good measure.

The paper – perhaps with one eye on a promotion for the former Times journalist Michael Gove – argued that Johnson needed to appoint “competent deputies” before “the public come to a settled and unflattering view about his ability to do the job”.

It was a few months after another surprising general election win in 1992 that John Major’s reputation was shredded on Black Wednesday. But for all the growing criticism and pandemic policy failures the situation is nowhere near as grave for the current prime minister: the Conservatives remain ahead in polls at just over 40%.

Neither the Times nor the Mail nor other traditional rightwing titles are talking about switching support to Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer. And there remain good arguments that the British public takes far longer to change its mind than Britain’s fickle and fast-moving press.

Pollster Deborah Mattinson, author of a new book, Beyond the Red Wall, that analyses Johnson’s seizure of Labour strongholds in last December’s election, said: “Red Wallers, though disappointed, are more forgiving than you might expect. They have taken this big decision to leave Labour and are seeking to justify that.”