Boris Johnson has spent decades perfecting his act as Britain’s most famous buffoon—and the election campaign he’s spent his life preparing for has, fittingly, started like a clown car, immediately falling to pieces around him and leaving him clutching a steering wheel attached to nothing.
It’s hard to think of a campaign that’s ever gotten off to a worse start—and most of the damage was done before the campaign had officially begun. Johnson left Downing Street on Wednesday to visit Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace and explain to her exactly why he’s forced her and the country to go through a third general election in just over four years.
But, while he was inside the palace, the latest in a string of campaign catastrophes struck. One of his cabinet ministers announced his resignation, forced to quit after a rape victim accused him of lying about whether he knew of allegations that a former aide sabotaged a rape trial. Last week, Alun Cairns claimed he was unaware of his ex-staffer’s role in the failed rape trial, before the BBC published an email showing the opposite.
A cabinet resignation would be enough to create a huge storm cloud over any campaign launch—but it’s arguably not even the most damaging piece of news suffered by Johnson in the past 24 hours. Another member of his cabinet provoked equal parts fury and disbelief Tuesday when he suggested that the victims of 2017’s catastrophic Grenfell tower block fire in London, in which at least 72 people died, lacked “common sense.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, made the callous comments live on radio Tuesday, telling LBC: “The more one’s read over the weekend about the report and about the chances of people surviving, if you just ignore what you’re told and leave you are so much safer. And I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building. It just seems the common sense thing to do.”
Rees-Mogg was forced to apologize after victims’ families expressed their horror at what he said—but that was far from the end of the matter. One of his Conservative Party colleagues then took to the airwaves to defend Rees-Mogg for the comments he’d already profusely apologized for and retracted. Andrew Bridgen suggested Rees-Mogg would have made a “better decision” than those who died in the fire because he’s highly educated.
Speaking on BBC Radio on Tuesday, Bridgen said: “What he’s actually saying is that he would have made a better decision than the authority figures who gave that advice [to stay inside].” Asked if he was implying that Rees-Mogg was more intelligent than the people who died, Bridgen replied, after a long pause: “But we want very clever people running the country, don’t we, Evan? That is a by-product of what Jacob is and that is why he is in a position of authority.”
Inevitably, Bridgen was also forced to apologize by Wednesday morning. He admitted that his comments had caused “a great deal of distress and offense” to the survivors and families of victims of the tragedy.
So, if you’re keeping count, that’s one cabinet resignation, and two public apologies for offending the families of victims of one of the most horrific tragedies in modern British history, all in the 24 hours before Johnson officially launched his master plan to win a parliamentary majority.
But that’s just the start of a long list of problems that has beset the Conservatives since it was agreed an election would be held in December to try to break the Brexit deadlock. For example, last week, evidence that could lead to criminal charges against Johnson’s 2016 pro-Brexit campaign was passed by police to the criminal prosecution authorities.
Johnson is also under heavy fire over accusations from lawmakers that he’s intentionally delaying the release of a report into Russia’s influence in British politics until after the election. The report’s authors say it was supposed to be released before the vote, but it has been mysteriously held back. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said the delay was because the report “risks derailing their election campaign” by exposing links between Russia and Johnson’s Brexit campaign.
The Conservatives were also accused of Trump-like social-media tactics after the official Twitter account was caught misleadingly editing and posting a video of the Labour party’s Sir Keir Starmer to give the false impression he failed to answer a question on the party’s Brexit position.
Johnson was also condemned Wednesday for writing an article for The Telegraph in which he compared Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to mass-murdering Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Johnson accused Corbyn of hating wealth so much that he and others “point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks.”
All the gaffes, mishaps, and disasters culminated Wednesday morning when Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly was empty-chaired by Sky News after failing to appear for an interview. Host Kay Burley instead used the segment to list her questions about the terrible campaign start all while Cleverly’s lonely chair was alone on the screen.
Apparently undeterred, Johnson told the nation in a speech outside Downing Street on Wednesday afternoon, in the official start of the campaign, that he wants to win a majority to push forward with Brexit.
Johnson said a majority Conservative government would return to parliament in December and have Brexit completed by the end of January. If the start of his campaign is anything to go by, there’s absolutely no guarantee that this election will give him the result he wants.
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