GRETA THUNBURG Facing up to the truth
Some people stand out. Not because of their unparalleled power or unfathomable wealth. Not because of their charismatic presence or their speed, strength or beauty. Not even because of their greatness as creators, thinkers or discoverers of new ways of comprehending the world. They are people who seem to embody the priorities of the moment, across cultures, regions, languages or status - not because of their wisdom or clarity of thought but because of their integrity and conviction. Because of their vision. Because we trust them.
To take one of the gravest crises in human history and characterise it as a head-to-head conflict between two celebrities would be an act of trivialisation beyond parody. That's not the intention here. Cop26 will ultimately prove to be a success or failure for reasons far beyond the political skills and slippery tongue of a British Prime Minister or the eloquence and integrity of a teenage activist from Sweden.
Global jamborees, like Cop26, have their value, or even necessity, but they are more a three-hundred ring circus than a focal point for serious policy-making and action. They are theatre, being beamed into consciousness of all but the most intransigent or remote. If the world can really be saved from irretrievable disaster it will be because of the numberless calculations and decisions, actions and reactions made all over the world in the next 30, 50, 90 (just choose a number} years. And events such as Cop26 will be integral to that process but not unique.
Yet there is something emblematic about Greta Thurnburg and Boris Johnson - opposite points on a very large dial. Both protagonists recognise in each other someone who demands to be acknowledged and addressed. Both of them have learned to get the global media to give them and their opinions full attention. Both, I suspect, are on some kind of spectrum - one openly acknowledges this and the other presses on regardless. Both have enthusiastic supporters and vituperative critics. Both are representative of this momentous time. GD
Greta Thunberg's retort to Boris Johnson and his like was delivered at the Youth 4Climate conference in Milan. Her sarcastic tone matched the sarcasm that he peppers throughout his own speeches.
One of their most arrestings recent head-to-heads (at a distance and not simultaneous) was triggered by Boris Johnson, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly. Both he and Great Thunberg had in mind the forthcoming Cop26 assembly.
“Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”
“You say you love your children above all else and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”
“Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people”
"We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.”
We have become used to the diminutive figure of Greta Thunberg dodging her way into the palaces of power through crowds of admirers, critics and media. Her courage and consistency have proved impressive. She has never used her youth as a tool to strike hearts, she has used her sharpness of mind and strength of argument instead. The fact that she has had to work against the grain of her personality and built-in vulnerabilities make her achievement even more remarkable. Greta's 2020 address to the United Nations was one of the most impressive political speeches I have ever encountered. I was reminded of another diminutive figure swamped by crowds, Mahatma Gandhi.
At the Cop26 conference in Glasgow, Greta was kept out in the cold, literally - excluded from any of the main sessions in that highly secure network of buildings reserved for world leaders sonf their entourages, and the vetted and selected few. At first, there was a kind of desperate bravado in her response, emphasising her enforced marginality.
Sticking climate change up your arse may be a perverse pleasure but it is not an antidote to catastrophe. Yet anarchic frustration is perhaps an inevitable response when you feel you are not being listened to, and you have been locked out of the meeting halls. Yet Greta found her voice again as the main event continued in its contradictory way, promising hope and proper engagement from certain global leaders even as others promised intractability and minimal acknowledgement of the scale of the disaster that faces the world.
I have embedded the following interview from The Guardian because Greta's reticence has kept her in a kind of shadow of her own making. That, of course, is to be fully respected. But it is also good to see her prepared to reveal something of herself. It talks of a new confidence, and creates space for empathy between us. In all matters -not least the existential crises we are all experiencing- empathy is a vital resource.
The Guardian's makeover image is arresting, for many reasons. It has a strange glamour around it that is intriguing, but its very quality of production somewhat weakens the message. I am reminded of another recent makeover of an eighteen-year-old woman, Emma Raducanu. The presience of Vogue placed Emma in the direct glare of the spotlight, at the precise moment of her triumph. Greta has had more time to deal with celebrity and its discontents. We wish her well in this and all other negotiations.
We need her, and people like her.
Greta Thunberg, in her early teens, leading a school strike outside the Swedish Parliament. Michael Campanella/The Guardian
Greta Thunberg has made the ultimate sacrifice for the Guardian. She’s allowed us to turn her into a human oil spillage. The treacly black stuff is dripping from her hair, down her nose, past her cheeks on to her
neck and shoulders.
Down, down, down it drips. By the time we speak on Zoom, a day later, she has just about got herself cleaned up. Has she ever been covered in oil before? (It’s actually a mixture of non-toxic finger paint and olive oil.) “No,” she says. This is a typical Thunberg answer – short, factual, to the point. She never likes to waste her words. How did it feel? “It felt better than I thought it would feel. I had a ribbon on my hair to not get my hair black, but then it spilt through the ribbon so my hair was completely black. It was very difficult to get off.” I suggest that she sues the Guardian. “Yes,” she says.
Thunberg isn’t smiling.
We talk first thing on a Sunday. Look at Thunberg and she seems little changed – still elfin-like and earnest; still quoting the climate science with fastidious politeness; and still with that curious mix of pessimism (we’re doomed if we don’t act) and optimism (we can avert catastrophe if we do). But, as she relaxes, I begin to discover that this is a very different Thunberg from the one she presented to the public in 2018. While she has done much to change our perspective of the world, the world has done much to change her – and, she says, for the better. Despite the climate crisis deepening by the day, Greta Thunberg has learned how to be happy.
Like the rest of us she has retreated from the world over the past year and a half, but she has used her time to good effect – to grow up. Thunberg is now 18 years old and campaigning as ferociously as ever, while living in her own apartment (where she is speaking from), hanging out with friends and having fun. She is turning into the kind of young woman that neither she nor her parents could have ever envisaged. At home in Stockholm, she says, she goes unnoticed. “Fortunately I live in Sweden, which is very good because people aren’t interested in ‘celebrities’. When I do get stopped, it’s mostly tourists and people from abroad.”
Her father, Svante, talking to me from the family home, tells a funny story about the time he and Greta attended a climate exhibition in the Swedish capital. “She was the main part of the exhibition. There was a big picture of her taken in North Dakota, hanging in the middle of the hallway, five metres tall. No one came up to her. When we left, someone came up with an iPad. I thought, ‘OK, maybe someone wants an autograph’ and the woman said, ‘Excuse me, we’re doing a survey for the museum.’ That sums up how people treat her in Stockholm. They’re not very impressed, and I think that’s good for her. No one really gives a damn.”
Locals may not give a damn, but I discover later on that plenty of other people do – sometimes in a way that has threatened the safety of Thunberg and her family.
Three years ago Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg was an unknown 15-year-old terrified that we were destroying the planet and furious that adults were letting it happen. Her fury was particularly directed at those with power. She decided to take unilateral action, and tweeted her plan.
“We kids most often don’t do what you tell us to do. We do as you do. And since you grownups don’t give a damn about my future, I won’t either. My name is Greta and I’m in ninth grade. And I am school striking for the climate until election day.” She didn’t expect anyone to take notice. Thunberg had spent her short lifetime not being noticed. She was small, rarely spoke and described herself as “that girl in the back who never said anything”.
Thunberg spent the first day sitting cross-legged on her own outside the Swedish parliament alongside a sign made from wood scrap that read “Skolstrejk bör klimatet” (“School strike for climate”). Although she was striking, she still treated it as a regular school day – she rode to the Riksdag on her bike, took out her books and studied till the end of the school day. The next week a few others joined her – fellow students, teachers and parents – and her campaign began to attract media interest. In September 2018 she began a regular Friday strike, calling it Fridays for Future, encouraging other students to join her. By March 2019, her protest had spread to more than 70 countries. On 20 September 2019, 4 million people joined a school strike across 161 countries – the largest climate demonstration in history.
Within a year, Thunberg had become one of the most famous people on Earth. Since then she has been nominated twice for the Nobel peace prize, addressed the UN and been thanked by the pope. Liberal world leaders suck up to her to show their people they take the climate crisis seriously, rightwing populist leaders mock her to show that they don’t. November’s Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow is due to be attended by more than 200 nations, and will be one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in history. But many people only want to hear from one person – the autistic teenager with the pigtails.
Perhaps the biggest change in Thunberg is her faith in people. When she started out, she didn’t have any.
“I didn’t think young people cared about climate because all the young people I knew were like, ‘Oh yeah, the climate is important, but I don’t want to do anything about it.’ But it turned out many young people around the world actually care. A lot! And they are very ready to do something about it. I’m very glad I was proven wrong.”
She talks about the activists she has met, and how they have inspired her. For the first time in her life, she was meeting people who shared her passion – or obsession. I had met one of her fellow Fridays for Future activists a couple of weeks ago – Vanessa Nakate, Uganda’s first school striker. Thunberg’s face lights up when I mention her. “Vanessa is an incredible person.” She draws such strength from people like Nakate, she says, because they are taking greater risks than she has ever had to.
“Some places are much harder to be an activist in than others. I look up to them so much. They give me the hope and inspiration to carry on.” She pauses. “Of course, I might be naive because I’m very young.” She pauses again. “But I think naivety and childishness are sometimes a good thing.” The great thing about youth, she says, is you’re not blinded by realpolitik and the assumption of compromise. “I do think older people make things more complicated than they actually are.”
Is there a sense of solidarity between fellow activists? “Definitely. We have daily contact. We don’t just campaign together, we are also friends. My best friends are within the climate movement.” I ask if she could ever be friends with a climate denier. “Erm, yeaaaah,” she says uncertainly. “I mean in one way we’re all climate deniers because we’re not acting as if it is a crisis. I don’t know. It depends on the situation.” So there’s hope for your friendship with Donald Trump? She lets out a hiccup of laughter. “Well, I don’t think we would enjoy each other’s company that much. We have very different interests.”
In 2019, when Thunberg was crowned Time magazine’s person of the year, Trump tweeted: “So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” Eleven months later, with Trump demanding a recount, having lost the election to Joe Biden, Thunberg coolly tweeted: “So ridiculous. Donald must work on his Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Donald, Chill!”
She is still thinking about the question of befriending a climate denier. The funny thing is, she says, she used to be in denial herself. “When I first heard about it, I didn’t think it was real because if it was real, people would do something about it. It didn’t add up
Then, aged eight, she was shown a film of an armada of plastic assailing our oceans. She couldn’t get it out of her head. She started to read about it, and became more and more terrified. She was exceptionally bright, with a photographic memory, but was also withdrawn and quiet. And she was becoming more so.
At the age of 11 she fell into a deep depression and stopped eating and talking. Why does she think she was so unhappy? “One of the reasons was I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that people didn’t seem to care about anything, that everyone just cared about themselves rather than everything that was happening with the world. And being an oversensitive child with autism, it was definitely something I thought about a lot, and it made me sad.”
Was it also because she had been bullied at school? “Yeah, to some extent.”
I ask if she literally stopped talking. “I spoke to my parents, my sister and a bit to my teacher,” she says. Why did she stop? “I don’t know. I just couldn’t.”
Greta with her mother, the opera singer Malena Erman. Malin Hoelstad /SyD/PA
Svante tells me it was terrifying. “It was complete hell; a nightmare for me and my wife. We took all the time in the world to be with her and sort this out, and that was the best thing we’ve done in our lives.”
Svante and the opera singer Malena Ernman have two children: Greta and her sister, Beata, who is three years younger. When Greta was born, Malena’s career was taking off, so Svante – who had trained as an actor – stayed at home to look after the children. By the time they started school, Malena was touring internationally. Svante started a production company and looked after her work. But when Greta fell ill, he became a stay-at- home dad again, monitoring everything she ate (“Five pieces of gnocchi in two hours”) and her dramatic weight loss, and talking her through her fears. That was when he discovered that so much of it was rooted in the climate crisis.
It amuses him when he reads that it was he and Malena who turned her into a climate activist. Svante says that Malena was an activist but she campaigned for refugees (and they had refugees living with them) rather than the environment. The only aspiration he had for Greta back then was for her to get better. As for himself, he knew little about the climate crisis, wasn’t convinced by what he did know and just wanted to get a nice big car – an SUV or pick-up truck. Over time, Greta changed his mind.
“The way she got us interested was a bit by force. She hijacked us. She started turning off lights. She cut the electricity bill in half.” He laughs. “She’d say, ‘Why have you got the lights on in this room, you’re not even in here?’ and I’d say, ‘Because we live in a country where it’s dark all the time and it makes me feel nice’ and she’d say, ‘Why? It doesn’t make any sense.’ Of course, she was right.”
Did he get pissed off with her? “Oh hell, yeah. She can be very, very, very annoying. But because we were in this crisis we had to react, so we became aware and began to do stuff for the environment, but not because we wanted to save the environment; we did it to save our child.”
At the time, Beata had also been diagnosed with neurodevelopmental disorders, and the family was imploding. Malena and Svante wrote a book about this period, with the Bergmanesque title Scenes from the Heart. It was published on 23 August 2018, three days after Greta’s first school strike. Svante says the timing couldn’t have been worse. “It was a hell of a nuisance when she decided to do the strike because it left us in a tricky situation.” Why? “It was obvious everyone would say you’ve written this book and she’s going on school strike as a PR stunt. But she had made up her mind she was going on strike, so we thought the only thing we could do was give every cent away. All our earnings from the book went to charity.”
In the book, Malena describes how the 11-year-old Greta was “slowly disappearing into some kind of darkness and, little by little, bit by bit, she seemed to stop functioning. She stopped playing the piano. She stopped laughing. She stopped talking ... She stopped eating.” They were, she concluded, “burned-out people on a burned-out planet”. An updated version of the book was published last year in the UK, retitled Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis, this time with contributions from the girls, and the whole family credited as authors. Malena explained why she had felt compelled to write it in the first place. “Because we felt like shit. I felt like shit. Svante felt like shit. The children felt like shit. The planet felt like shit. Even the dog felt like shit,” she wrote. Svante says hardly anybody bought either version of the book because they decided not to promote it.
I ask Thunberg how important her family’s support has been. “In the beginning they didn’t like the idea of me skipping school, but then they helped more, arranging trips. My dad even followed me on some.” They made huge sacrifices for you, I say. “Yep. They changed their lifestyles. My mum stopped flying, and by doing that she stopped her international career, and I really appreciate it.”
Does she feel guilty about stymying her mother’s career? She seems surprised by the question. “It was her choice. I didn’t make her do anything. I just provided her with the information to base her decision on.” At times like this you can see how unyielding she is – while it’s the source of her strength, you can imagine just how tough it may have been for her parents. “Of course, you could argue one person’s career is not more important than the climate, but to her it was a very big thing,”
Thunberg was at home with her father for a year. By the time she was ready to return to school (initially a specialist autism school, then grammar school), she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, obsessive compulsive disorder and selective mutism. Thunberg says the diagnosis came as a relief.
“When I felt the most sad, I didn’t know that I had autism. I just thought, I don’t want to be like this. The diagnosis was almost only positive for me. It helped me get the support I needed and made me understand why I was like this.”
She describes her autism as her superpower. I ask why. “A lot of people with autism have a special interest that they can sit and do for an eternity without getting bored. It’s a very useful thing sometimes. Autism can be something that holds you back, but if you get to the right circumstance, if you are around the right people, if you get the adaptations that you need and you feel you have a purpose, then it can be something you can use for good. And I think that I’m doing that now.”
Thunberg has not just become the world’s best-known climate change activist, but also its best-known autism activist. As she tells her story, I can’t help thinking of it as some kind of parable – the girl who was ignored, or worse, by her peers who becomes the face of a global movement for young people.
Her rhetoric is as beautiful as it is brutal. Again, she thanks her autism for the bluntness of her language. In a thunderous speech at the UN climate action summit in 2019, she told the great and the good: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” It was an extraordinary sight – the schoolgirl rebuking the world’s leaders in the language of a furious parent. And the very people she was condemning gave her a standing ovation.
There was a frightening intensity to the speech. You couldn’t help wondering what it was taking out of Thunberg. Does she feel she has missed out on her teens? “No, definitely not. I don’t have an urge to party or drink alcohol or do whatever teens normally do. I enjoy much more doing this and being a nerd!”
I ask what she does to relax. “I listen to music, and podcasts. But I do other things. I do embroidery like I’m doing now.” I hadn’t even noticed that she was stitching away while chatting. Can I see what she’s making? “No, because it’s a surprise for somebody,” she says.
Actually, she says, she’s got loads of hobbies. “I also do a lot of jigsaw puzzles. The biggest was 3,000 pieces, but that didn’t fit on the table so it was very complicated to finish. And I also spend time with my two dogs [a golden retriever and black labrador] and talk lots to friends. We are very silly. Maybe people have an idea that climate activists are serious, but that’s not the case.” She hiccups another giggle.
Do you really speak to your climate activist friends every day? “Yes, many times a day.” Do you have parties? “Since we are spread all over the world it’s hard to do that, but we have Zoom calls and movie nights online and lots of chats where we just spam each other.”
Wow, I say, so, really, you’re just a bunch of jokers? A little crease spreads across her lips. I think she’s smiling. “Yes, we discuss very important topics like mousse and baby carrots, and bread. Sometimes we have very heated discussions.” About chocolate mousse? “No!” she says, appalled. “The animals.”
Do you discuss whether moose are in danger of extinction? “No! I don’t know if I want to say this. We joke we are a moose cult.” Why? “It’s a very long story. And then we have these internal jokes, like the poem about the baby carrot.” At this point, I have to admit to her that she’s lost me. But she’s on a roll. “It’s Henrik Ibsen. You can Google it. We sometimes have discussions where we just write ‘babycarrot, babycarrot, babycarrot’.” (I do Google it later, and discover it’s a source of contention whether Ibsen actually wrote the 11-word poem Dear Babycarrot.)
That’s bonkers, I say. She nods, happily. I love seeing her like this. It feels a privilege to be let into her private world, however briefly. Lots of people would think you don’t have the time or the inclination to mess around, I say. “I think we mess around a bit too much. I may make us sound like idiots now, but that’s what we do.”
I drag her away from the world of moose and baby carrots to discuss Cop26. How optimistic is she that the conference can achieve anything? “I am not. Nothing has changed from previous years really. The leaders will say we’ll do this and we’ll do this, and we will put our forces together and achieve this, and then they will do nothing. Maybe some symbolic things and creative accounting and things that don’t really have a big impact. We can have as many Cops as we want, but nothing real will come out of it.”
What does she think about the fact that Boris Johnson says climate is his priority while at the same time supporting new coalmines in Cumbria and the Cambo oil fields off the coast of Shetland? “It’s hypocritical to talk about saving the climate as long as you’re still expanding fossil fuel infrastructure.” She says she can’t think of a single politician who has impressed her. “Nobody has surprised me.”
What about, say, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who said that the climate crisis was a matter of “life or death” at the June launch of her new roadmap to control global heating? She looks sceptical. “It’s funny that people believe Jacinda Ardern and people like that are climate leaders. That just tells you how little people know about the climate crisis.” Why? “Obviously the emissions haven’t fallen. It goes without saying that these people are not doing anything.” In April, it was revealed that New Zealand’s greenhouse-gas emissions had increased by 2% in 2019.
Little has been seen of Thunberg during the pandemic. In May a short film conceived by her examined how people’s land use, agricultural practices and exploitation of animals create the perfect conditions for diseases to spill over from animals to humans, making pandemics ever more likely. The Friday strikes became virtual as live activism was put on hold. The enforced break was necessary, her father says. She had done so much and travelled so far (twice crossing the Atlantic by boat in 2019 to attend conferences, and journeying through America and Canada to witness the impact of climate change) that she was exhausted.
“The pandemic has been a complete tragedy for everyone, of course, but being stuck here in Sweden for a year and a half has been good for Greta,” Svante says. “She definitely needed a break after all the madness she’s been through.”
However, the last thing Thunberg herself wanted was a break – the climate wouldn’t wait for her and, anyway, she was on a high. After all those years of struggle, she had finally found her purpose.
It’s astonishing how many people see you as some kind of secular saint, I say. “No!” she says adamantly. She sounds shocked, almost angry at the suggestion. Do you find yourself getting bigheaded? “No, it’s very important not to. But I think it’s an exaggeration saying many people treat me as a saint. More people treat me like something very, very bad. There are people who laugh as soon as they hear my name.” Why? “Because they have already decided what they think of me and nothing they hear will change that point of view because it’s such a filter bubble. And they just hear fake stories about me, and people who mock me. So it’s two extremes.”
When people mock you, what are they mocking? “Oh, ‘The climate goblin is forcing you to stop eating meat’, which I have never said. They just do it to make fun of me and other climate activists.” Does that hurt you? “Noooooah,” she says sweetly. “I understand that everybody has their own sense of humour. Me, personally, it doesn’t hurt, but if it affects my family or other activists, then it’s a different thing.”
And has it affected your family? “Yes. If there are people standing outside your house filming you through the window and then trying to break in, of course that affects the family. And constantly having rumours spread about you that you’re manipulating your child, of course that affects you.”
Again, she says that the rumours about herself don’t bother her. Such as? “According to some, I’m an evil, manipulative child who takes advantage of everyone I meet. Others say I’m a helpless child who has been exploited. Some say I’m a communist; some say I’m an extreme capitalist; some say I’m an agent for India, or Russia, or the US ... ” She could go on. How is she an extreme capitalist? She shrugs. “I don’t know.”
Svante is not so quick to shrug it off, though. She has had to deal with more than rumours, he says. “There have been lots of death threats, and one man has been sentenced in court in Sweden. As a parent you’d be a fool not to worry about that.” Does it scare him? “Of course. There are a lot of crazy people out there. Now, though, her being 18, she’s an adult, she makes her own decisions; she can decide everything and she just wants to live like a normal person. Her being a public figure is not a place where you necessarily want to be.”
Thunberg is not alone in receiving threats. Climate activists are being targeted around the world. This month, the campaign group Global Witness revealed that more than 220 activists who work to protect the environment and land rights were murdered last year – a record number.
As well as her enemies, there are the Greta groupies to cope with. While the locals let her get on with her life in Stockholm, some international fans have been more intrusive, Svante says. “When we came back from North America, she couldn’t stay at home because people kept showing up. They travelled from various countries and came knocking on the door, and that was a bit of a problem.” It got so bad that he and Greta moved out of the family home into another apartment.
Just a few weeks ago, she left home permanently to live by herself. Could he imagine when Greta was struggling most that at 18 she would be living independently? “The main thing I’m concerned about is my children being well, and the fact that Greta is now living by herself, coping by herself, travelling by herself is amazing,” he says.
Thunberg is enjoying the new freedoms of adult life. Yesterday she went on a demo that had nothing to do with climate – a protest against the violence in Afghanistan. She thinks she may go to university next year, but nothing has been finalised. Career-wise she always tells Svante she’d love to do something that’s nothing to do with climate, because it would mean that the crisis has been averted. But they both know it’s a fantasy. In the meantime, she is back striking in the real world, on Fridays, alongside millions of others. I sense that what she’s really looking forward to is spending quality time with her friends at Cop26, tearing a strip off the heads of state for failing the world’s young yet again, and chatting nonsense about moose cults and baby carrots.
I ask if she was friendly with any young people before she became an activist. “No,” she says baldly. Would you say until three years ago you didn’t have any friends? “I had friends, but I didn’t have friends my own age. I was a good friend with my teacher, and I had friends when I was younger. Then I didn’t. So it was a strange feeling to have always been the quiet person in the back that nobody really noticed, to becoming someone lots of people actually listen to.”
Hers is a remarkable story. Not just the fantastical stuff – the little girl who conquered the world. But the smaller, more personal story, the one she’d doubtless tell us doesn’t matter – the lost little girl who learned how to belong. This is the one that
really moves me.
When she didn’t have friends, did she want them? “I think I did, but I didn’t have the courage to get friends,” she says. “Now, when I have got many friends, I really see the value of friendship. Apart from the climate, almost nothing else matters. In your life, fame and your career don’t matter at all when you compare them with friendship.”
Thunberg says she has met like-minded people – in every way. “In the Fridays for Future movement, so many people are like me. Many have autism, and they are very inclusive and welcoming.” She believes the reason that so many autistic people have become climate activists is because they cannot avert their gaze – they have a compulsion to tell the truth as they see it.
“I know lots of people who have been depressed, and then they have joined the climate movement or Fridays for Future and have found a purpose in life and found friendship and a community that they are welcome in.” So the best thing that has come out of your activism has been friendship? “Yes,” she says. And now there is no mistaking her smile. “Definitely. I am very happy now.
Cold-shouldered by the organisers of Cop26, Greta and her tens-of-thousands of fellow demonstrators braved the Scottish weather and kept up a noisy critique of the world's leaders and their empty rhetoric.
The great plate
bull in a
china shop ?
"My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters."
"This is an absolute turning point in the story of our country because I think if we go on with being enmeshed in the European Union, it will continue to erode our democracy. That is something that worries me."
"My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it."
"I don't believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy ... is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity."
Some people see Boris Johnson as a unique figure in British politics. Not the usual grey man, mouthing platitudes but someone with charisma, a sense of fun and popular appeal, who has managed to save Britain from the bureaucrats of Brussels by delivering Brexit, and the Conservative party from meltdown by delivering a massive Parliamentary majority. Yet some people think Boris Johnson is a buffoon, a mini--Trump striding the world making much noise with little content. Above all they think he is pathological liar who believes in nothing much apart from his own wellbeing. They also think that Brexit is proving to be the very disaster they expected it to be, and watch Prime Minister Johnson squander his vast majority through incompetence spiced with venality and a disregard for democratic process.
For Boris Johnson Cop26 was an opportunity to shine. Here was was Prime Minister of the host nation to this global event, a universe away from Greta and her friends on the nearby streets, frozen out of the debate. He could be expansive, witty, erudite, persuasive. Or, possibly, confusing, contradictory and way off the point --- as if he is too detached from the subject to fully care about his argument, or the need to maintain its consistency.
I fear that choosing James Bond, as an emblematic Brit, to illustrate his case, seems crass to the point of stupidity. Bond is as morally ambivalent a consumer (of both products and people) as ever drove an Aston Martin to work. In terms of his relevance to the climate and biodiversity crises I was shaken not stirred.
After his speech Boris (as we in Britain so affectionately - or ironically - call him) jumped into a private jet to return to London. There, against the advice of wiser minds, he cooked up a corrupt and incompetent manipulation of the Westminster Parliament, which instantaneously blew up in his face. - to the outrage of his Conservative party and the amusement of everyone else. James Bond? No, surely this was Mr Bean, that other icon of Britishness who has long entertained the world, with incompetence his defining feature.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Boris Johnson's government denied fresh accusations of corruption on Sunday morning in the second scandal to hit the Conservative party in less than a week. But how much is too much for the British public?
Joanna York for France 24 7.11.2021
Voters in Britain awoke to fresh accusations of corruption against Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government Sunday morning as a newspaper investigation found donors to the Conservative Party had been offered seats in the House of Lords. The Sunday Times reported that 15 out of a total of 16 Conservative treasurers over the last two decades had donated more than £3 million to the party and then been offered a seat in parliament's upper chamber.In response the government denied corruption claims for the second time in less than a week following what has been dubbed a “sleaze scandal” involving former Conservative MP for North Shropshire, Owen Paterson. Last week government watchdog the Parliamentary Commission for Standards found Paterson had repeatedly lobbied government and officials on behalf of two companies whom he was working for as a consultant for a fee of £100,000 a year.
While paid consultancy is allowed under government rules, the report found that Paterson’s actions on behalf of the two companies in parliament amounted to “paid advocacy”, with one of the companies, Randox, winning a Covid testing contract from the government worth £133 million.
The official report recommended Paterson be suspended from parliament for 30 days as a penalty, but in a highly unusual move, his fellow MPs in the Conservative Party refused the measure. Instead they organised a vote to overthrow the process for regulating parliamentary standards altogether, which a majority of MPs voted in favour of. The vote also vetoed Paterson’s suspension in advance of a new procedure being put in place, for which the MP told the BBC he was “grateful to the prime minister”.
The vote in parliament caused an outcry in political and media circles, with popular tabloid The Daily Mail publishing a headline saying MPs had “sunk back into sleaze”, and leader of the opposition party Keir Starmer publicly accusing the Conservatives of corruption in an article in The Guardian.
Then in a surprise U-turn one day later, the decision was reversed and Paterson was forced to resign. This might have been due to another form of external pressure changing minds among politicians, Professor Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, told FRANCE 24.
“MPs were saying I'm getting contacted by constituents and they're really hopping mad about this. We know that the public in Britain really don't like sleaze and corruption in their politicians.”
Former MP for North Shropshire Owen Paterson attending a conference in 2017. By playful coincidence, the ghostly figure behind Mr Paterson is Nigel Farage,one of the most significant figures in Britain's torturous journey into Brexit.
Since he came to power in 2019, Boris Johnson and his government have been hit with a series of scandals that could have turned voters against him, but none seem to have caused irreparable damage so far.
This is down to a willingness from the public to give the government “the benefit of the doubt”, Ford says.
Accusations of mismanagement of the health crisis -- which has left the UK with one of the highest Covid death tolls in Europe with 142,000 Covid deaths so far -- could be put down to the exceptional circumstances. Ford adds that a successful vaccine rollout “really bailed the government out” in terms of public opinion.
Even Johnson’s verbal gaffes, including reportedly saying in October 2020 he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than have another lockdown, could be put down to the fact “he was exhausted, he was exasperated, he was frustrated”, says Ford. “People will relate to that.”
Other scandals such as Covid rule-breaking from government ministers and damning revelations from former advisor Dominic Cummings have also failed to land a body blow on the prime minister’s reputation. This is partly because they happen so frequently, Ford says. Leaping from crisis to crisis means that every time a scandal with the potential to sway public opinion happens, “something else comes along within a few days that takes the whole conversation into a different space. We can't keep talking about the same issue for long enough to understand it”.
However, this might also add to a cumulative effect that leads voters to lose faith in a party over time. While individual sleaze scandals are unlikely to have a large impact on the electorate, Ford says there can be a “cumulative effect of scandal, on scandal, on scandal. That gets around the attention issue because it does gradually seep into the public consciousness”.
This is territory the prime minister and his government may now be straying into. Recent investigations into his finances have included reports Conservative donors helped Johnson pay for a flat renovation costing up to £200,000 -- infamously including “£840-per-roll” gold wallpaper chosen by his wife Carrie Johnson.
On November 5 the prime minister was once again reported to the parliamentary standards committee for refusing to disclose the cost of a holiday that he and his family took over summer in a Spanish villa owned by the family of Conservative peer Zach Goldsmith. Then last week his government seemed to be excusing an MP for profiting from lobbying and attempting to dismantle the parliamentary standards committee in the process.
Fresh claims of corruption on Sunday morning will not help his case, and once the electorate perceive a government -- or a politician -- to be sleazy, the damage can be significant. The public may be able to excuse incompetence, but corruption is a harder charge to forgive, especially when those accused refuse to apologise.
In Paterson’s case, he maintained in his resignation statement that he was “totally innocent” of any wrongdoing, despite having been found to be in the wrong. Johnson may have more leeway: he is, as Ford says, the “kind of politician that doesn't play by the rules so voters factor in a certain level of bad behaviour. That makes it harder to make this kind of thing to stick -- it's not like anyone who voted for Johnson in 2019 would be shocked and appalled to discover that he was a bit dodgy”.
But it is unlikely Johnson's luck will last forever. Following this morning’s revelations, the prime minister’s personal approval rating has fallen to its lowest level on record, according to an opinion poll for the Observer newspaper. Meanwhile Conservative's lead over Labour has fallen to a single percentage point.
The UK does not have to hold another general election until 2024, but evidence of just how damaging these latest scandals have been may show up in local elections and by-elections before then. If the Conservatives start losing safe seats it could be a sign that voters have had enough.
It is impossible to predict exactly when public opinion may turn on a governing party but, Ford says, “certainly repeated sleaze scandals like this will hasten the arrival of that point, if nothing else”.
Then, just a couple of weeks after the Cop26/Owen Patterson car crash, Boris Johnson spoke to the Confederation of British Industry, giving a speech that skidded between surrealism and Monty Python - in truth, a speech that caused many people to ask whether the British Prime Minister had lost the plot completely.
Boris Johnson enjoys a ride with his wife and son at Peppa Pig World. George Edgar/Reuters
Celebrity TV presenters Ant and Dec pay homage to Boris Johnson's oratory.
The comedian Matt Green presents an alternative version of the Boris Johnson car crash speech.
So did Kermit get it wrong?
A lot had happened in the few months since Boris Johnson had spoken to that emptying chamber of the UN General Assembly, about the necessity for concerted global action to mitigate the climate catastrophe. Along with the bluster, the lack of self-awareness and the unintentional irony, he went on to make many demands on his fellow world leaders and presented a catalogue of claims on his government's behalf.
In a controversial aside, he challenged Kermit the Frog's claim, in his celebrated song, that "it isn't easy to be green." On the contrary, said Boris, it is very easy to be green, and you could make a lot of money doing so. (As an aside, it is worth noting that the wellbeing of frogs in a specific environment is a key indicator of the health of its ecosystem.} The truth is, there is consistent gap between the Johnson government's claims and its actual contribution to a reduction in climate change and biodiversity loss. Surely this is direct evidence that going green is not at all easy. It takes effort and determination. And not simply words but action. And not simply words but words that are consistent with the facts.
The opening of Boris Johnson's UN speech was a statement criticising humanity in general for its destructive infantilism. Yet destructive infantilism is precisely what Boris Johnson is most guilty of. He claims in the speech:
“We still cling with parts of our minds to our infantile belief that the world was made for our gratification and pleasure. And we combine this narcissism with an assumption of our own immortality. We believe that someoe else will clear up the mess. We trash our habitats again and again with the inductive reasoning that we’ve got away with it so far and therefore we will get away with it again. My friends, the adolescence of humanity is coming to an end, and must come to end.”
Yet there is considerable evidence that Boris Johnson has never been inclined (able?) to abandon his inner adolescent. Whether a student of Literae Humaniores at Oxford, an ambitious journalist, an even more ambitious politician and, now, Prime Minister of a small-to-medium-sized nation, with an idea of its place in the world out of all proportion to its significance and reliance on past "glories", Boris Johnson has acted like a spoiled brat. And he has still to grow up. With baffling insouciance and incurable indifference to the consequences, he trashes responsibilities, relationships and the truth. As is appropriate for extended adolescence, he started young
The BullingdonClub 1986. The shock of blond hair makes Boris Johnson unmissable.
by Harriet Sherwood, July 2019
A woman who acted as a scout for potential members of the Bullingdon Club in the mid-1980s has said that female prostitutes performed sex acts at its lavish dinners, women were routinely belittled, and that intimidation and vandalism were its hallmarks. The woman, who has asked not to be named, is now an academic and regards her involvement with the male-only Bullingdon Club more than 30 years ago with extreme regret and embarrassment.
The woman who was the club recruiter said: “Boris was one of the big beasts of the club. He was up for anything. They treated certain types of people with absolute disdain, and referred to them as ‘plebs’ or ‘grockles’, and the police were always called ‘plod’. Their attitude was that women were there for their entertainment.”
She said there was a “culture of excess” in the 1980s in which the activities of the Bullingdon Club felt “normalised”. “They had an air of entitlement and superiority.”
One incident she recalled at Magdalen College involved “a large galleried room that had just been refurbished with expensive wood panelling. Every piece of furniture that could have been broken was broken, every liquid sprayed around the room, the panelling was cracked, and everything was piled in a heap in the middle of the room. The college door to Magdalen was smashed to pieces.
“I remember the clerk of works looking at the mess in complete dismay. The college had spent a great deal on the refurbishment. All the students who heard this late-night destruction were terrified, I remember.”
Bullingdon members “found it amusing if people were intimidated or frightened by their behaviour. I remember them walking down a street in Oxford in their tails, chanting ‘Buller, Buller’ and smashing bottles along the way, just to cow people.
“They had an air of entitlement and superiority.”
The following much abbreviated list is a familiar one, but to read it at a run is still shocking. This os the perpetual an adolescent who has never learned to take responsibility for what he says, leave alone what he does or fails to do
Ten lies, gaffes and scandals that make
Boris Johnson unfit to rule
Part of a list compiled by the Daily Mirror at the time of the 2019 General Election
1 The Times sacked Boris Johnson in 1988 for making up a quote in a front-page story. The former journalist fabricated a claim by his godfather, academic Colin Lucas, that Edward II and his lover Piers Gaveston would have cavorted in a newly-discovered Rose Palace.
In what the 23-year-old later called “my biggest cock-up”, it emerged the Palace was only built long after Gaveston was murdered. Rather than admit his lie Mr Johnson wrote a further story saying “the mystery had deepened”. He admitted in 2013: “I mildly sandpapered something somebody said, and yes it’s very embarrassing and I’m very sorry about it.”
2 In 2004, by then MP for Henley, he was sacked as Tory vice chair and Shadow Arts Minister after aides to leader Michael Howard decided he had lied about an affair. Mr Johnson had denied reports of a four-year fling with journalist Petronella Wyatt, saying: “I have not had an affair with Petronella. It is complete balderdash.”
But her mother said the affair did happen - and Petronella had an abortion as a result. Lady Verushka Wyatt added: “The reason she went out with him was because he said he was going to marry her.”
Mr Johnson has since stayed quiet, saying in 2013: “I don’t propose to go into all that again.” Ms Wyatt admits the pair had a “tendresse”.
Michael Howard added: “My director of communications at the time was convinced Boris had lied to him.”
3 Boris Johnson was secretly recorded in 1990 in a phone call with former Eton pal Darius Guppy, who was jailed for five years in 1993 for his part in an insurance fraud. Mr Guppy wanted contact details for News of the World journalist Stuart Collier, who was investigating his affairs. “There is nothing which I won't do to get my revenge,” he said.
Asked by Mr Johnson “how badly are you going to hurt this guy”, he replied the journalist “will not be seriously hurt” but “will probably get a couple of black eyes and... a cracked rib.”
Mr Johnson could be heard seeking assurances he would not get in "trouble" before saying: "OK, Darrie, I said I'll do it."
No attack ever took place and Mr Johnson said in 2013 he was just “humouring” his old pal. But Mr Collier, now 69, said he feared for his family and called on the new Prime Minister to apologise.
4 Boris Johnson worsened the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in loose comments he made as Foreign Secretary in 2017. He wrongly told MPs the British mum, held in Iran on spying charges, was “teaching people journalism”.
That undermined her defence that she was on holiday - one backed up by her employers. Four days after Mr Johnson’s comments she was threatened with five more years’ jail on charges of “propaganda against the regime”.
Mr Johnson dodged blame, saying his comments "didn’t, I think, make any difference" to the time she spent in jail. But Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe said: “Of course they had consequences.”
5. Boris Johnson branded black people ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ in 2002. He wrote in the Telegraph: "It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies."
Speaking of Tony Blair ’s trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, he said: “No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh. And the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”
Mr Johnson later defended his comments, branding them “wholly satirical”.
But Labour ’s equalities chief Dawn Butler said the racist comments made him "unfit to be Prime Minister".
6 In August 2018 he branded Muslim face veils “oppressive”, “weird and bullying” and said it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letterboxes."
Any female student who turned up to school "looking like a bank robber" should be asked to remove their face covering, he added.
He went on to argue against banning the burqa in public, but his snide remarks prompted outrage, including from senior Tories. He refused to apologise and was cleared of breaching the Conservative Party code of conduct.
7 The MP indulged in a racist description of Barack Obama at the height of the EU referendum in 2016. He claimed a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office had been removed around the time the US President moved in.
He remarked: “Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President's ancestral dislike of the British Empire, of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender."
Those condemning his “nasty” comments included Winston Churchill’s Tory grandson. And Barack Obama - who was born in the US - revealed he had actually moved the bust to a prime spot outside his private office, saying: "I love Winston Churchill. Love the guy."
8 Boris Johnson was a figurehead of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, fuelling their lie that the UK sent the EU £350million a week. He rode the infamous battle bus emblazoned with the figure and appeared in front of a banner that said: “Let’s give our NHS the £350million the EU takes every week.”
The UK Statistics Authority said the figure was £285m a week, without factoring EU payments to the UK. With only the most basic EU payments (directly to the UK public sector) factored in, that dropped to £190m. Yet the MP carried on using the debunked figure for more than a year.
In a damning rebuke the Statistics Authority told him it was a “clear misuse of official statistics”.
9 Vote Leave was accused of misleading scaremongering in 2016 for running an ad campaign that said: "Turkey (population 76million) is joining the EU". In fact, Turkey had been trying to join for decades, had yet to meet many requirements, and Britain could veto its membership.
Boris Johnson - who has Turkish ancestry - later claimed “I didn’t make any remarks about Turkey” in the referendum. But this was untrue. He said in a BBC debate two days before the vote: “Last time I looked the government wants to accelerate Turkish membership.”
He was also in the “core group” of the campaign committee for Vote Leave. Former Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings claimed Mr Johnson helped secure 650,000 votes by “picking up the baseball bat marked ‘Turkey/NHS/£350 million’ with five weeks to go”.
10 Boris Johnson broke rules on financial interests three times in less than a year.
He breached the Ministerial Code in August 2018 by starting a £275,000-a-year newspaper column just three days after quitting as Foreign Secretary.
In December he was ordered to apologise for failing to declare £52,723 of income on time. And in April 2019 he was 11 months late registering his 20% share in a property in Somerset.
Parliament’s Standards Commissioner accused him of a “lack of respect” for the system adding: "I do not accept that this was an inadvertent breach of the rules."
By December, 2021 the lies, gaffes and scandals have become an avalanche of broken china, growing evermore threatening to the Conservative government and its increasingly besieged Prime Minister. Rather than generate another list, I'll offer up the bulletin from a single, typical day, by one of the host of commentators who are having the time of their lives. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: in the week ahead Boris Johnson faces a massive Parliamentary rebellion from his back benchers, and by-election looms in what should be an unassailably Tory seat.
How much trouble is
Boris Johnson in?
by Gus Carter
In some ways it's difficult to tell. This is a prime minister who seems almost unable to exist without a crisis. But last night's new Covid rules — mixed up with the unending stories about Downing Street parties in the depths of lockdown — seem to have ushered in a different level of Westminster discontent. It's more the timing than anything else. On Tuesday morning, the Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said 'We don’t think that Plan B is required'. On Wednesday evening the PM implemented Plan B. What happened?
During those intervening 36 hours, the data on Omicron only seemed to have improved. Further evidence emerged that while more transmissible, the effects of infection seem to be milder than previous strains. What's more, the ONS released data showing that 95 per cent of Brits have some form of immunity. And Pfizer announced that a third jab would boost immunity back up to pre-Omicron levels. All promising signs that Britain was as well equipped as it could be for the spread of Omicron.
So why the new rules? After all, the restrictions brought in last night have already been shown to have failed in Scotland, as Michael Simmons pointed out on Coffee House last night. Perhaps it had something to do with those party stories? Allegra Stratton took the fall yesterday afternoon, announcing her resignation in an emotional statement outside her home.And yet a few hours beforehand, Boris Johnson was still insisting that as far as he was concerned no party had taken place. What better way, a cynic might think, to distract from another embarrassing story of hypocrisy and deceit than by bringing in new restrictions on people's liberties?
Certainly MPs are growing weary. Westminster smartphones have been lit up like profane Christmas trees. Tories of all stripes are venting their frustration at an 80 seat majority with nothing to show for it but angry constituents and grim headlines. This morning's papers are probably the worst for the PM since that 2019 election. The Daily Mail sums it up better than perhaps anyone else with its front-page splash 'One rule for them, new rules for the rest of us':
Then there's the Telegraph, which seethes at the contradictions in the new rules themselves. 'Don't go to work, but do go to parties'. In fact, it's a medley of truly grim headlines, pointing to his call for a 'national conversation' about forceable vaccinations and a suggestion from the Scottish Tory leader that he might have to resign — all ties up with the question 'Beginning of the end for Boris?':
The Yorkshire Post meanwhile asks simply 'Prime Minister: how do you sleep at night?':
There is now a sense that Boris's supporters are slipping away, both in parliament and in the wider country. One of the few firms to publish a survey yesterday was Redfield & Wilton, which found a six point swing to Labour, with Starmer's party on 38 per cent and the Tories on 34. Meanwhile, ComRes found that 54 per cent of people thought that Boris Johnson should resign. Expect more polling to come out today, which should give a clearer picture of discontent in the country as a whole.
For those in his party though, the Boris Johnson pact was always that he was a winner — that he was able to convince voters which other Conservative politicians were unable to reach. His relationship with his party is transactional. If MPs start to feel that the PM has broken his part of the bargain, then the case for Boris will have been decisively weakened.
Boris Johnson’s coalition of
voters is falling apart
by Matthew Goodwin
December 31, 2021
Boris Johnson enters the third year of his premiership in a much weaker position than when he started it. Alongside major rebellions inside his own party, humiliating by-election defeats and growing speculation across Westminster about who will succeed him, he has another problem:
the coalition of voters who propelled him into Number 10 Downing Street is now rapidly
One reason why Johnson emerged with the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher’s third and final majority in 1987 is because he united Leavers; those who have felt ignored, neglected and even held in contempt by much of the ruling class. While this process began under Theresa May, Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ strategy took it to its logical conclusion. He recruited more than three-quarters of Leavers (and a not insignificant one-quarter of Remainers) in 2019 and cannibalised much of Nigel Farage’s vote along the way. And, at least until this autumn, he managed to retain the support of almost all of these voters, aided by a strong vaccine programme.
More people now think Starmer not Johnson is most likely to stand up for the interests of the UK
These voters also changed the nature of conservatism, something Johnson’s advisors have clearly struggled to recognise and respond to. The Conservative party today is simply far more dependent on people who want strong borders, controlled and ideally less immigration, who want the government to prioritise national (not universal) rights, a more robust response to radical left progressives and for serious reforms to the progressive consensus that has dominated Britain and many of its institutions for 20 years. Their number means they will also influence the outcome of any future leadership election: no aspiring leader can win without them.
But today this coalition is fragmenting. Over the past six months alone, the share of Leavers loyal to Boris Johnson has crashed by almost 20 points. Almost one-third of his 2019 electorate now say they will not vote at the next election, do not know who to vote for, or refuse to say who they will support. While a growing number are switching to Reform, after being angered by Covid restrictions and a ballooning state, most of the people abandoning Boris Johnson are not switching to Labour or another party; they are simply giving up on politics altogether. Many are drifting into apathy, as they did before Brexit and before they believed, briefly, that Boris Johnson was the radical alternative they craved. Can he win them back? That is his primary challenge in 2022.
Unless he does, then the local elections in May will throw further light on these defections and pile yet more pressure on the Prime Minister. Crucially, these elections will not only be
held across London but in more than 30 metropolitan boroughs, from Barnsley to Bolton,
Dudley to Walsall.
Many are not only scattered across the Red Wall but what I call the Red Wall 2.0, where Labour majorities now hang by a thread as a result of Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s successful incursions in 2017 and 2019. Today, there are nearly 30 seats in the Red Wall 2.0 which have Labour majorities of fewer than 4,000 votes. The message of the last election was that Johnson can offset losses in southern Remainia if he leans into this political realignment.
But does he want to?
Labour will head into these elections and 2022 looking for signs of recovery outside of cities and university towns while Johnson’s critics will be looking for further evidence that his appeal is on the wane. And on the wane it is. In the polls this month Johnson’s leadership ratings crashed to a new low of minus 29 (Starmer is on minus 8) while his government’s competency rating collapsed to minus 30. Ask people who would make best Prime Minister and six months ago Johnson led Starmer by 11 points; today, Starmer leads Johnson by one. More people now think Starmer not Johnson is most likely to stand up for the interests of the United Kingdom.
Amid a levelling-up strategy that is still AWOL more than two years into Johnson’s premiership – and amid growing concerns among cultural conservatives about illegal immigration, Covid restrictions and what many see as an intensifying culture war being waged against British history, identity and culture – it is not hard to see how these local elections become more significant than those in the past. If Johnson no longer looks like a leader who can retain support in the Red Wall, and is already haemorrhaging support in historic Tory heartlands such as North Shropshire, then it is not hard to see how the case against him goes from being speculative to watertight.
It is not yet the end of the road for Boris Johnson. He is routinely underestimated by much of SW1 and many of the fundamentals remain in his favour, even if his premiership remains in disarray. His electorate is still distributed across the country far more efficiently than Labour’s. The left has not yet demonstrated a serious recovery at actual elections (Labour’s vote fell by 12 points in North Shropshire). And Labour is still stacking votes in its strongholds while losing votes in areas where it needs them.
Johnson’s strength across England also bodes well for a future Conservative campaign that will inevitably focus on the threat of a Labour-SNP coalition. The absence of the Brexit party will also help (recent research suggests Johnson’s majority in 2019 would have extended to more than 100 if Farage’s candidates did not stand). It is not yet the end of the road. But unless the Prime Minister and his team can successfully navigate these tests, then it may well be the beginning of the end.
Matthew Goodwin’s latest book Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics will be published in 2022 by Penguin. He is an academic, writer and speaker known for his work on political volatility, risk, populism, British politics, Europe, elections and Brexit.