16 April 2024
Boris Johnson - former prime minister of the UK and former conservative party leader

Is Boris Johnson the ultimate campaign in crisis communications? A timeline of Boris Johnson scandals

Boris Johnson is one of the most enigmatic, infuriating, addictive yet painful, leaders in the history of the UK. He has lurched from high highs to low lows almost effortlessly. Half of the Tory party hate him, half the party love him.

He steered the UK through an unprecedented global pandemic. Whilst the full effects of COVID 19 on the country won’t be known until decades later, his achievement clearly bought him time with some of his party.

Before we get into how, and, or if, Boris Johnson could make a comeback and in what capacity, it is important to understand the sheer scale of scandal that has followed Johnson around over the years.

For full transparency, over the years, I have been paid to advise both the UK Conservative Party and the Labour Party around online reputation campaigns. In addition to this I have advised and worked on reputation campaigns for individual politicians from both the main UK political parties. Whilst I am getting it all off my chest, at one time I was a signed up member of the Conservative Party. I am no longer a member of this nor any other UK political party.

Here is a brief summary and timeline of the more significant scandals and issues that Johnson has been involved with over the years.

1988: Alleged to have made up a quote to support a front page story in The Times. Admitted he did do this many years later and said how sorry he was.

1995 – June: It was revealed that in 1990 Johnson was asked by Darius Guppy to provide him with the address of NOTW journalist who was investigating him, to have him beaten up. The journalist was not attacked and Boris says this was because he did not hand the address over.

1998 – April: First appearance on BBC’s Have I Go News for You. Catalyst for more TV show appearances.

2004 – Published an Op Ed in the Spectator with negative comments about Liverpudlians around the murder of Ken Bigley and the Hillsborough Disaster

2004 – May: Johnson forced by Michael Howard (Conservative leader) to go to Liverpool and apologise to its people for his/Spectator Op Ed article.

2004 – November: Johnson revealed to have had an affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt. He lied about it and was asked to resign by Michael Howard. Johnson refused to resign and was fired.

2005 – Dismissed from his position as editor of The Spectator. Negotiated his salary up at the Daily Telegraph.

2006 – April: – Johnson was accused of having another affair.

2006 – April: Rugby tackled Maurizio Gaudino (former pro sportsperson) in a televised charity football match.

2006 – September: Papua New Guinea High Commission complained after Johnson compared the Tory leaderships battles to “cannibalism in Papua New Guinea”.

2009 – June: Became associated with the political expenses scandal. A member of his team was forced to resign over this.

2009 – July: Describes his Daily Telegraph £250k salary as “chicken feed” in a BBC Hard Talk interview, to great condemnation. In 2009 this represented approx 10 x the average salary.

2009 – August: Forced to remove a summer house on a balcony at his home in Islington as it was erected without planning permission.

2009Accused of having an affair with Helen Mcintyre who would go on to claim she had a child with him.

2009Accused of warning a Conservative MP (Damian Green) that he was due to be arrested by the MET police.

2012 – March: Johnson was standing for re-election as London Mayor. Was accused of highlighting tax evasion smears against his rival.

2013Mayoral fund awarded to a close personal friend of Johnson two sums of money as part of a Government programme. Johnson is also said to have intervened to enable her joining three trade mission trips.

2016 – April: Johnson said Barack Obama encouraged the UK to remain in the EU because of his “ancestral dislike” of the UK as part of his being “part-Kenyan”. King’s College London revoked a speaker opportunity for Johnson as a result of these comments.

2017 – September: reiterated that the UK would save £350m after Brexit.

2018 – June: – Quoted as saying “F*ck business” when asked about companies being concerned about a hard Brexit.

2018 – August: Johnson is found to have breached ministerial code by accepting a new role with The Telegraph and made to apologise to parliament.

2018 – December: Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said that Johnson’s earning declaration errors were not “inadvertent” and had happened on nine occasions.

2020 – May: Dominic Cummings (Johnson chief political advisor) made a trip with his family during COVID lockdown which was against the rules of the lockdown. Johnson’s refusal to sack Cummings caused a wide political and consumer backlash.

2021 – April: Cummings (now ousted by Johnson) claims that Johnson asked donors to secretly pay for the renovation of his residence at 11 Downing St.

2021 – November: Johnson blocks the suspension of Owen Paterson who was embroiled in a lobbying scandal. Paterson eventually resigned

2021 – December: Conservative Party fined £17k for not following the rules for reporting donations. This also related to the refurbishment scandal

2021 – December: The first reports of social gatherings and parties taking place in Downing St. Johnson apologised for a video that showed staff joking about having a party. He claimed he had not known.

2022 – January: ITV reported on a planned party that had taken place on May 2020 during the first lockdown. Two eye witnesses said that Johnson and Carrie Symonds attended.

2022 – January: Johnson apologises for “attending the event in the Downing St garden”.

2022 – January: Johnson makes a speech in parliament where he falsely accuses Kier Starmer of not prosecuting Jimmy Saville when Starmer was Director of Public Prosecutions. Starmer is proven to have not been involved at all. Johnsons policy advisor, Julian Smith, is forced to resign over the slur.

2022 – February: four of Johnsons top aides were forced to resign over party-gate

2022 – April: Johnson issued with a fixed penalty notice for breaching COVID-19 regulations.

2022 – April: House of Commons passes a motion tabled by labour calling for Johnson to be investigated by the Commons Privileges Committee for having misled parliement over Partygate allegations

2022 – June: faces a vote of no confidence after at least 54 Conservative MPs wrote letters to Sir Graham Brady. Johnson won.

2022 – June: Johnson is asked how much he knew about Chris Pincher being accused of inappropriate behaviour after Johnson was accused of referring to him as being “handsy” by Cummings. The former Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Simon McDonald, said that the prime minister had been briefed in person about Chris Pincher.

2022 – July: A co-ordinated set of resignations by Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid triggered a further avalanche of Conservative MP resignations that eventually led to Johnson resigning. In his eventual leaving speech he referred to a Roman times dictator called Cincinnatus who eventually returned to power.

2023 – March: Johnson puts his own father forward for a Knighthood as part of his Resignation Honours list. This plays out terribly in the court of public opinion.

2023 – May: Johnson was referred to the Police by the Cabinet Office around potential breaches of the COVID regulations.

2023 – June: Involved in a public spat with Rishi Sunak over his Prime Ministers Resignation Honours list. On the same day he announced his resignation from his seat following the findings of the committee that was looking into whether or not he misled parliament over the party-gate.

poster mokcing boris johnson. The protest poster says "the worst BJ in history".

What do all the Boris Johnson scandals say about his character?

I think I should leave psychology experts to make a qualified assessment as to Boris Johnson’s character and personality type. Anyone who has read through the above list of scandals (and these are just the more significant ones and not an exhaustive list) would have to say Johnson appears to have, at the very least, a disregard for the general rules of life.

It is one thing to flirt with the rules of the norm, it is another to deliberately trample all over them. I would like to err on the side of caution and say that, maybe, he gets caught up in the moment and gets carried away, rather than having a more sinister motive behind his actions. One thing is for sure, he is hungry for success.

When did the crisis communications campaign really start for Boris Johnson?

I would suggest that three key milestones were significant in Boris Johnson losing the court of public opinion.

  1. May 2022 – Not sacking Dominic Cummings for going on a road trip during lockdown and breaking the law

When Cummings was revealed to have gone on a road trip during the first lockdown, breaching the new lockdown laws, Johnson should have sacked him immediately. He could have still worked for Johnson behind the scenes, as countless other advisors have done for prime ministers in the UK over the years.

No one really knows why Johnson didn’t sack Cummings at the time. I think it is fair to say though, that Cummings obviously had a lot of BoJo Facts that Johnson didn’t want to get out so he kept him in his role. This backfired as Cummings was still forced out later down the line and he then turned on Johnson.

This was the first time, as a social and media commentator that I really felt that Boris was truly out of step with the thoughts of the general public and Tory voters.

2. Blocking the removal of Owen Paterson as an MP over a lobbying scandal in November 2021

This is another time where Boris got it really wrong. Again, I really felt that the general public were enraged by the “them and us” feel to politics. This was very much a cash-for-access scandal and in crisis communications terms Johnson should have moved quickly and decisively to get rid of the issue.

He didn’t and it dragged out. Peterson was still forced to leave but it did untold damage to the Prime Minister.

3. Party-Gate Jan to April 2023 was the final straw with the general public

Johnson, try as he might, could not survive Party-Gate. He completely lost any public support he had once garnered and the police caution was the beginning of the end for him. If he had stepped down in 2022, he may well have found his return path far smoother.

He decided to stick it out though, and it was essentially a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario.

What should have Boris Johnson’s crisis communications campaign looked like

I would have advised him to apologise for all three of the above key issue areas that I believe turned public opinion against him. Apologising, where you can, without it being a legally compromising move, would have been his best bet and is also crisis comms 101.

If the stories continued on and he could offer nothing else by way of a Dead Cat plan to shake the media off, then he should have seriously considered resigning earlier. With time away from the limelight and a few strategic interviews, he could have created public demand for his return.

This nearly happened after Liz Truss and before Rishi came into power. For Johnson though, the gap between him leaving and Truss making a lettuce of the job was not sufficient enough for the public to want him back, nor his colleagues. If she had lasted for at least six months longer, he could have had a far easier route back to power.

Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs gives a press conference in Brussels, Belgium on Apr. 05, 2017.

Is there any path back for Boris Johnson now?

100% yes.

Love him or hate him, he is one of the most charismatic leaders in British history. Let me try and explain why and how Boris could make a comeback.

The UK is currently on the cusp of financial ruin and, in my opinion, the closest to mass civil unrest that I have ever experienced in my lifetime.

The Labour Party under Starmer has made significant inroads towards winning the next election but its current figurehead lacks, actual leadership qualities and credentials. I believe that Angela Reyner is far better suited, charisma, personality and leadership skills wise, to lead the country out of its current plight.

The identity crisis in the Labour Party leadership team is what could allow Boris to try and present himself as the potential saviour of the UK.

Prior to writing this article, I had always suspected that Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby had been across both the Johnson and Trump camps in some form or another. My research for this post kept bringing me back to it being Steve Bannon (former Trump Chief of Staff) who connected Trump and BoJo in style and tone.

I think we are now seeing more of his influence in the style and rhetoric from Boris. He is no longer the bumbling, jovial, leader and instead going on a Trump style rant that is littered with inaccuracies and wild accusations aimed at deflecting the public away from the real issues. This is not an effective crisis communications plan in my eyes though.

If Boris can eventually plant the seed in the public eye that the institution of politics is broken and that only he is able to bring it back around, then he stands a chance of getting back in.

Boris has the vote of the hugely influential grey-market (despite his taking them for granted during COVID 19). He maintains a mass-middle-market appeal due to his “stick it up ’em” attitude to rules. He still has an air of intrigue, even if it is firmly on the wane.

First up, Boris needs a large chunk of time out of the limelight. He then needs to start planting positive stories about him being a reformed character. We can expect a lot of family pictures being “papped” on the run up to his return to public life.

He is too far into the “everything is a conspiracy against me” style of Trump campaign to pivot suddenly back to his bumbling-fool persona, but he will need to show humility and contrition before the public will take him back.

Will Boris Johnson win the next election?

No! But keep an eye him using the Conservative election loss and potential Labour Party implosion after its successful return to power, as the catalyst for his return.

*pic creds: Shutterstock.com (licensed)

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