Boris Johnson has long appeared to be coated in political Teflon. From mismanaging a global pandemic in a way that has likely led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, to unlawfully shutting down parliament, and standing by an adviser who flouted lockdown rules, none of his transgressions seem to have had lasting impact on the government’s approval ratings. Political analysts say that this is because voters have “priced in” his flaws: they knew Johnson lacked integrity and an eye for detail when they voted for him, so are willing to forgive them.
Will he be able, similarly, to ride out the latest lobbying scandal, involving former MP Owen Paterson? By accepting hundreds of thousands of pounds from two companies on whose behalf he lobbied ministers, Paterson was found by a committee of cross-party MPs and members of the public to have egregiously broken the rules. They recommended a 30-day suspension as punishment; instead, the government instructed Conservative MPs to vote against this and for “reform” of the whole system. This is only the latest example of Johnson acting as though the rules don’t apply to him and his political allies; Johnson has faced more investigations by the parliamentary standards commissioner than any other MP in the last three years, and the Electoral Commission is conducting an ongoing investigation into the funding arrangements for the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. Furthermore, Johnson is running a government that rewards ministerial contacts with lucrative pandemic contracts.
Opinion polls the weekend after the government was forced into a U-turn suggest that the episode has at least temporarily pushed Johnson’s approval to a record low. But the likelihood is that this will not, by itself, translate into a sustained shift in people’s voting intentions. There are, however, reasons for Johnson to worry. Firstly, this incident served to further underline that, with Brexit achieved, the right-leaning parts of the press are not holding back in their criticism. This is particularly true of the Daily Mail, edited for the last three years by Remain-supporting Geordie Greig. It has the largest circulation of any national newspaper and ran successive front pages on Tory sleaze.
So long as MPs see Johnson as their ticket to re-election, they will back him, but if they start to see opinion polls shift in the next couple of years, his future as leader is by no means secure
Secondly, the Paterson affair has driven a wedge between veteran Conservative MPs who know him well, and those elected in 2019. Many of the new intake were reportedly furious at being pressured by Downing Street (sources said there were threats potential rebels would have funding cut from their constituencies) to vote to let Paterson off the hook, only for Johnson to change his mind the following day. So long as MPs see Johnson as their ticket to re-election, they will back him, but if they start to see opinion polls shift in the next couple of years, his future as leader is by no means secure.
Finally, while sleaze scandals do not in and of themselves generally turn voters against a government, they contribute to voters’ negative perceptions of unpopular governments. Johnson won a huge majority just two years ago; public opinion does not shift that quickly. Yet in a couple more years, when many people will be facing a grimmer financial situation as tax credit cuts, rising energy costs and the impacts of Brexit continue to bite, these sorts of events will do more damage. Johnson’s lack of integrity is something that has marked his whole career, along with his unforced errors over a range of other issues – being shamed into no less than three U-turns by the footballer Marcus Rashford on child poverty, for example. All of which suggests he is not as good at politics as the size of his majority initially suggests. He cannot afford to keep showing voters just how much he thinks he and his party are above the rules. But my prediction is there is more sleaze to come, and it will be increasingly damaging to the government.
The success of the HPV vaccine is an unalloyed good news story. A new study published this month showed that the vaccine – which has been offered to twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls in the UK since 2008, and to teenage boys since last year – has cut the incidence of cervical cancer by almost 90 per cent. It was a major breakthrough in 1999 when scientists proved almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus. The link with one particular virus meant that developing a protective vaccine against this cancer was well within the capacities of science and today’s generation of young women are reaping the benefits, although uptake of the HPV vaccine was worryingly lower than usual last year due to Covid-related school closures.
Developing a vaccine against the many other forms of cancer that are unrelated to HPV is a much more difficult scientific challenge. But a new trial has just been launched into a vaccine against an aggressive form of breast cancer. And scientists are optimistic that the leaps in vaccine technology made as a result of the pandemic, including the development of the first mRNA vaccines, will help in the race to develop vaccines against other types of cancer. It’s a glimmer of light in the sleazy gloom.
Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist. She also presents Analysis documentaries for Radio 4