British PM Boris Johnson has brought in new senior staffers as he tries to restore his flagging authority – including a communications chief who insisted the Prime Minister is “not a total clown.”
Mr Johnson hired Guto Harri, an aide from his days as London mayor who has recently been critical of the PM, to try to regain control of the government’s messaging after weeks of turmoil that have led some in the ruling Conservatives to call for his removal.
He also appointed a senior cabinet minister, Steve Barclay, as his new chief of staff.
Mr Harri told Welsh media the Prime Minister belted out a version of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive when they met last week.
“He stood up from behind his desk and started to take the salute but he said: ‘What am I doing? I should take the knee for you’. The two of us laughed. Then I asked: ‘Are you going to survive, Boris?’ And he said in his deep voice – slow and purposeful – starting to sing a little while finishing the sentence and saying: ‘I will survive,” he told Golwg.360.
“Everyone’s focus has been on recent events that have caused a lot of hurt, but in the end, that’s nothing to do with the way people voted two years ago. He’s not a complete clown, but he’s a very likeable character … He is not a vicious man as some misrepresent him.”
But unease about Mr Johnson’s leadership grew on Monday (British time), when opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer was harassed outside parliament by anti-lockdown protesters who accused him of protecting paedophiles when he was a prosecutor, echoing a slur made by Mr Johnson last week.
Visiting a hospital cancer centre on Monday outside London, Mr Johnson said he was “focused completely” on clearing a backlog of millions of medical procedures built up during the pandemic.
It is one of a pile of critical issues, including a squeeze on household finances from inflation and a looming tax hike, that are being overshadowed by scandal over lockdown-breaching government parties.
“I think what people want is for the government to focus, not on stuff going on at Westminster, but to focus on life … beyond Westminster, and to focus on the needs of the country,” Mr Johnson said.
“That is what we’re doing.”
Mr Johnson’s grip on power has been shaken by public anger over revelations that his staff held “bring your own booze” office parties, birthday celebrations and “wine time Fridays” in 2020 and 2021 while millions in Britain were barred from meeting with friends and family because of his government’s COVID-19 restrictions.
A total of 16 parties have been investigated by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, with a dozen of them also under investigation by the Metropolitan Police.
In an interim report last week into the four parties not under criminal investigation, Ms Gray found that “failures of leadership and judgment” enabled events to occur that “should not have been allowed to take place” and described a Downing Street operation marked by excessive drinking and dysfunctional dynamics.
Mr Johnson apologised – without admitting personal wrongdoing – and pledged to fix the problems in his office.
But on Friday he was rocked by the departure of five senior staff, including his chief of staff, his communications director and his policy director, Munira Mirza. Ms Mirza, a loyal long-time aide, had stood by Mr Johnson amid the “partygate” revelations.
But she said the final straw was his “scurrilous accusation” that Mr Starmer had failed to prosecute the late paedophile Jimmy Savile for sexual abuse when Mr Starmer was Britain’s director of public prosecutions.
Mr Johnson responded to the turmoil of recent weeks with a Downing Street shake-up.
The staff moves are intended to reassure Conservative politicians who are debating whether to seek a no-confidence vote in the leader who won them a big parliamentary majority just over two years ago.
Under party rules, a no-confidence vote is triggered if 15 per cent of Tory politicians – currently 54 people – write letters calling for one. If Mr Johnson lost such a vote, he would be replaced as party leader and prime minister.
Only 15 of the 360 Conservative legislators have publicly called for Mr Johnson to quit, though the number who have written letters is likely higher.