Boris Johnson and the furball

Philip Coggan
3 min readFeb 18, 2022

Getting rid of a prime minister, between elections, is rather like a cat getting rid of a furball. The process is not pretty, can take some time and creates a nasty mess. But eventually the offending object is ejected.
At the moment, Boris Johnson is the furball in the throat of the Conservative government. Many MPs were aware of his flaws when they made him leader, but believed that he had an ability to connect with the public that would win them an election. He duly delivered a thumping majority in 2019, albeit against a flawed opponent in Jeremy Corbyn; a contest that pitted a charlatan against a crank.
The main argument mounted by Johnson’s defenders is that he has handled the pandemic well. But has he? Let us start with cumulative death rates. The UK has recorded 2,351 deaths per million people which is less than the US (2,799) but more than France (2,020), Germany (1,442) and the EU average (2,244).
What about the success of the vaccination programme? It is certainly true that the vaccine taskforce, under Kate Bingham, made some excellent purchase decisions. Britain also benefited from broad political support for vaccinations, unlike America. But in terms of the share of people vaccinated, the UK is in 13th place globally, behind both France and Italy. That reflects the lower proportion of children vaccinated in Britain.
Then there is the economy. The Johnson government has recently claimed it is the “fastest-growing in the G7”. But this depends on the period over which growth is measured, and reflects a big decline in GDP in the first stage of the pandemic. The Economist measured the performance of 23 rich countries over the course of the pandemic, using five measures (GDP, household incomes, stock-market performance, capital spending and government indebtedness); Britain ranked 22nd, ahead of only Spain.
In short, there is nothing outstanding about the government’s record at all; far from it. Certainly nothing in the record excuses the way that Johnson has conducted himself in office. He has behaved as might have been predicted in one of his school reports

Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility… I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else

Even before he took office, he had to apologise for failing to declare income on nine separate occasions. More recently, even before the partygate scandal, he had to apologise for failing to declare Whatsapp messages about the funding of the refurbishment of his apartment.
It is all part of a pattern. Last night, I went to watch a performance of “The Great Gatsby” and one line struck me
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
It sums up Johnson, and those around him. Time for the Conservative party, and the British public, to cough him up and spit him out.



Philip Coggan

Former Economist and FT columnist. Author of More, Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine