Chairman's Desk

Boris Johnson’s latest circus is more than a failure of morals — it’s poor crisis management

After a long period at the top of the polls, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is staring down the barrel.

Furor is intensifying around revelations that he and his staff not just broke, but repeatedly flouted, his own government’s COVID restrictions — the very restrictions he imposed on the rest of the country. Now the opposition, the public and indeed Johnson’s own backbenchers are out for blood.

But perhaps most contemptible of all have been the prime minister’s own attempts to save his skin, clawing at any opportunity he has to abdicate his responsibilities.

There is no strategy here. I can only surmise that Johnson and his advisers are betting on either the desperation, alienation or stupidity of their electorate. I am not sure which is most offensive to the British people. Take your pick.

To recap for those not following this saga: the PM was caught red-handed attending several parties that occurred, of all places, at his official residence, 10 Downing Street — in direct contravention of his government’s own stringent restrictions at the peak of lockdown. At a time when most Britons couldn’t leave their house except for essentials, Boris permitted drinks and mingling in his own back garden.

Most humiliatingly, he was obliged to publicly apologize to the Queen for a party that took place on the eve of the late Prince Philip’s funeral — a funeral at which Her Majesty chose to very publicly observe the lockdown measures and sit alone.

Shameful doesn’t even begin to describe it.

First, Johnson claimed that he was not aware the “bring your own booze” events (astonishingly, that was actually included in the invitations) were social occasions. He then said the parties were co-ordinated by his rambunctious staff without his knowledge or blessing. More ludicrously, he later suggested that he was not informed of the rules banning such gatherings — despite having signed off on them himself!

The entire pathetic ordeal has led me to the grim conclusion that in Britain, as in many corners of the world, a period of sustained disruption and reliance on government has endowed elected leaders with an air of hubris. But as Johnson is learning, it is a mistake to equate a “rallying around the flag” response with a free pass to behave as you like.

One of the fundamental tenets of crisis response is that there is no substitute for leading with compassion. Johnson’s actions not only represent an appalling indifference to his responsibilities as prime minister — they are also a total abdication of leadership.

By blaming the culture within his office, Johnson has opted for the lowest excuse possible. And now, his plan is to use an external investigation to throw his team under the bus, in another abandonment of his leadership duties.

As a rule of thumb, if you need an investigation to assess your own conduct, your problem is almost always one of principles.

A true leader, or at least what we used to consider a leader, would have fallen on their sword and accepted responsibility for the rotten culture oozing from Number 10. And ironically, in doing so, they may have saved their own hide.

But not Boris Johnson. In a cheap ploy to win back hearts and minds of the Tory backbench as much as the British public, he even went so far as to lift virtually all pandemic restrictions.

But our British cousins are not alone. We’ve seen our own political leaders behave badly as well.

Time and again, we allow our politicians to mask their abject failures through the new-found, outsized role they play in our lives. Hiding behind the ups and downs of a pandemic, they behave as though adversity has made people completely passive.

It is high time to prove them wrong, by reminding ourselves that behaviour in public life matters — particularly when so much has been asked of our country.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star on January 23, 2022.

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