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The 14 scandals that define Boris Johnson’s time in office - 1000 days on from becoming Prime Minister

1000 days on from his first day in Downing Street, we look back at the scandals that have shaped Johnson’s time as Prime Minister

Since being elected leader of the Conservative party, and therefore prime minister, in mid-2019, Boris Johnson has divided opinion while facing undoubted challenges in the form of the Covid pandemic.

To his admirers he is a charismatic figure who has delivered on most, if not all, of his most important promises and who has guided the country through its darkest period since the second world war.

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But, to his detractors, Johnson has degraded the office of prime minister and displayed a level of incompetence and/or callousness which has seen the UK suffer almost as badly as any other nation in the world as a result of the pandemic.

Whatever their view of him, no one could accuse Boris Johnson of setting about the task of governing quietly, or failing to court controversy.

On average, Johnson has found himself engulfed in a scandal of some sort roughly every 64 days since he tried to prorogue Parliament in August 2019, one of his first acts as prime minister.

Here, we list just some of the most damaging or controversial scandals and setbacks of Johnson’s time in power so far.

Proroguing parliament

Boris Johnson set the tone early for his time in office, causing a major controversy which bordered on a constitutional crisis when he tried to prorogue Parliament for five weeks.

With the UK’s scheduled 31 October departure date from the EU fast approaching, Johnson advised the Queen to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament for five weeks from 10 September until mid October - an unprecedented amount of time.

Many, including then Speaker John Bercow, saw the Government’s actions as being designed to limit MPs’ ability to debate Brexit.

After a number of legal disputes worked their way through different branches of the judiciary, the High Court eventually decided on 24 September that the prorogation had been unlawful.

Parliament reopened the following day, although the House was suspended once again, for six days, on 8 October.

Sacking the Tory old guard

After the attempt to prorogue Parliament, Johnson doubled down by axing more than 20 of his Conservative colleagues from the party after they rebelled against the Government in a crucial Brexit vote.

The decision was highly controversial at the time and while some eventually had the whip restored a number of senior Conservative figures did not, including Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames.

Like the unprecedented move to prorogue Parliament, this move signalled Johnson’s ruthlessness and his single-minded commitment to ‘getting Brexit done’.

The 2019 general election

Though he took up the role a few months beforehand, the Johnson era truly began following the landslide election victory he achieved on 12 December 2019.

Although widely remembered as being ‘the one about Brexit’ that general election will also live long in infamy for some of the campaign tactics employed by the Conservatives in the course of achieving their victory.

The party itself was widely criticised after rebranding its official Twitter account as “FactCheckUK” for a time, but Johnson himself attracted the ire of many for seeming to avoid any form of scrutiny in the run up to polling day.

Not only did Johnson back out of a sit-down interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, but he famously was so keen to avoid the questions of one journalist that he hid in a fridge.

Mustique

A holiday to the exotic Caribbean island of Mustique which Johnson took with his then-fiance Carrie Symonds in December 2019 ended up prompting a number of difficult questions for the PM a couple of months later.

Johnson originally claimed that the holiday had cost £15,000 and had been paid for by Conservative donor David Ross, but Ross denied paying for the trip.

After an investigation, it was confirmed that Ross had not paid for the villa, but had ultimately been responsible for arranging and covering the cost of the holiday through an informal arrangement whereby he essentially traded the use of his own villa on the island to a third party in exchange for Johnson using a different villa for his stay.

Although the parliamentary ethics watchdog did later clear Johnson of breaking the MP’s code of conduct, it also criticised the manner in which he handled the investigation.

It also noted: “Given that Mr Johnson was twice reprimanded by our predecessor committee in the last parliament in the space of four months for an over casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the house, we would have expected him to have gone the extra mile to ensure there was no uncertainty about the arrangements.”

Shaking hands with Covid patients

On 3 March 2020, in the first televised press conference relating to the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, Boris Johnson sought to put minds at rest.

He said: “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.

“People obviously can make up their own minds but I think the scientific evidence is … our judgment is that washing your hands is the crucial thing.”

Hindsight is of course 20/20, but there were plenty at the time who saw this for the major blunder that it was.

It prompted Labour MP David Lammy to remark that the UK, “has had the worst possible leader at the worst possible time”.

Barnard Castle

Few political scandals reach the level of ‘cut-through’ achieved by the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle trip, with a brewery even naming a new beer after the landmark.

It was bad enough that Cummings was found to have left his home while the whole country was under lockdown, but the manner in which the scandal played out -- with Cummings calling a press conference in which he justified a thirty-mile drive with his family in tow by saying he wanted to ‘test his eyesight’ -- elevated the scandal to a new level.

As his top adviser, Johnson’s proximity to Cummings was always going to mean that the scandal impacted him, but the way Johnson went out to bat for Cummings and defended him meant that he took almost as much damage from the incident as his now estranged aide.

Johnson was widely criticised for seeming to place more importance on his aide’s job than maintaining the public’s faith in the importance of the Covid regulations, and seemed to hint for the first time at the ‘one rule for us and another for them’ attitude which many have characterised his government with since.

Christmas promises 2020

Even before the recent reports of cheese and wine parties in Downing Street, the way Johnson and the government handled the implementation of restrictions last Christmas drew widespread criticism.

Since he declared with confidence in mid-March 2020 that the pandemic could be dealth with within 12 weeks, Johnson has often failed to manage expectations in the fight against Covid.

This tendency to over-promise and under-deliver was felt most keenly last Christmas, when after numerous claims that the UK would be back to normal by the holidays, and later that a five-day relaxation of the rules would be in effect, Johnson announced on 19 December that the UK would spend Christmas in lockdown.

Not only did the delaying of this decision lead to chaotic scenes across the UK’s transport network, it also meant many families had to spend Christmas apart having been told up until the very last minute that this absolutely wouldn’t be the case.

Downing Street flat refurb

The Electoral Commission has only just published the findings of their investigation into how a lavish refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street abode in 2020 was funded, but the episode has long been a point of contention.

We now know Conservative donor and peer Lord Brownlow donated £67,801.72 to the Conservative party in October 2020, but only £15,000 was declared in the party’s donation report to the Electoral Commission.

Lord Brownlow specified that £15,000 of the donation was for an event, with the remaining £52,801.72 earmarked to pay back the party for payments made to the Cabinet Office, which made three payments totalling £52,801.72 in summer 2020 toward the cost of the flat refurbishment.

The Conservatives registered the money in their financial accounts, but listed it as a “blind trust loan” which the Electoral Commission found to be inaccurate.

The Electoral Commission also found that Lord Brownlow paid a further £59,747.40 toward the cost of the refurbishment, although these payments did not breach rules for receiving or declaring donations, as they were paid directly to suppliers.

The Electoral Commission has fined the Conservative party £17,800 over what it described as “serious failings” in the reporting and recording of the donations.

“Let the bodies pile high”

Since leaving Downing Street following a long, simmering feud with the PM, Dominic Cummings has caused significant problems for his former employer.

Not least when he made explosive claims in April this year that, prior to the announcement of a third lockdown in January, Boris Johnson had said he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than introduce further restrictions.

The remark, which a number of sources confirmed had been made, reportedly came about in frustration following a difficult SAGE meeting in which scientists had laid out the grim reality of the growing number of cases and hospitalisations.

Matt Hancock

When The Sun newspaper acquired and published a shocking video of Matt Hancock engaging in an extramarital affair with his aide Gina Coladangelo - and breaching Covid protocol in the process - the then-Health Secretary seemed destined for the chop.

Hancock eventually resigned, but not before trying to cling on to his job with an apology, which Boris Johnson reportedly accepted and as a result said that he ‘considered the matter closed’.

Following a public outcry Hancock inevitably did resign a few days later, but not before Johnson had been seen to let his colleague off the hook for a serious breach of Covid restrictions, once again prompting many to ask whether it was one rule for them and another for the PM and his associates.

Owen Paterson

As has often been the case with Johnson’s scandals and gaffes, it is often the response to the problem that creates most of the difficulties, rather than the problem itself.

When a report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards found Owen Paterson MP had breached lobbying rules, the whole affair could have been put to bed quietly enough had Johnson accepted the ruling.

But by trying to change the rules on investigating allegations of MPs’ misconduct to try and save Paterson from a potential suspension, Johnson created a major scandal, which evolved from being about just one MP’s second jobs to a much bigger issue with lots of mainly Conservative MPs coming in for criticism.

Not wearing a mask in hospital

While the Owen Paterson scandal was still rumbling on Johnson found himself facing criticism on another front over his failure to wear a mask.

He was photographed maskless at Hexham general hospital in Northumberland, accompanied by health workers, wearing face coverings, who he posed for pictures with.

At the time cases were beginning to creep back up, and there were particular concerns about Covid spreading among MPs and their staff in Westminster.

Downing Street parties

While strict Covid restrictions were in place throughout the last few months of 2020, reports which began to emerge in late 2021 suggested that a number of parties or social gatherings which may have breached those restrictions took place in and around Downing Street at that time.

After several months, a Met Police investigation and at least one internal government inquiry, fines have started to be issued to a number of people, including Johnson and Rishi Sunak, for attending gatherings in Downing Street.

The PM has already been fined for attending a gathering on his birthday in 2020, though it is expected that further fines will be issued for other gatherings and parties which took place at the time.

Johnson is expected to deliver a “full-throated apology” to MPs in Parliament today, as many MPs have spoken in defence of the beleagured PM, playing down his breaches of Covid guidelines.

Downing Street spokesperson Allegra Stratton was the first casualty of the scandal, having resigned after a video emerged from a rehearsal press conference from the period in which Stratton appeared to make light of the party taking place.

Pets before people in Afghanistan

It was then-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab who came in for the most criticism over his department’s handling of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and subsequent evacuations from Kabul.

But recent testimony from a whistleblower who worked in the Foreign Office at the time has brought to light allegations which could prove to be very damaging for the prime minister.

Senior desk officer at the Foreign Office Raphael Marshall wrote to the Foreign Affairs committee saying his team had “received an instruction from the prime minister to use considerable capacity” in order to evacuate charity worker Pen Farthing and 150 animals - mostly dogs.

Johnson has previously denied his involvement and the government has insisted that animals were not prioritised over people, but a letter to Farthing from the PM’s private parliamentary secretary Trudy Harrison guaranteeing him a flight slot would seem to contradict both claims.

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