Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Boris Johnson’s Buffoonery Is No Longer Funny

The publication of the British prime minister’s cellphone number is the latest debacle to hit a scandal-plagued government.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson eats ice cream.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson eats ice cream.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson eats ice cream as he campaigns in Llandudno, Wales, on April 26. Phil Noble/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON—As a columnist, now-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was known for his rambling literary style, something he’s managed to top now with his well-publicized texting tone. This week, the public has seen messages from Johnson to vacuum mogul James Dyson from 2020 assuring him that he would “fix” a tax situation for the billionaire’s staff. Concerns were raised in and around the British government about the apparent ease with which anyone might text the prime minister directly for a favor. The U.K.’s most senior civil servant, Simon Case, reportedly advised Johnson to change his phone number. Apparently, he refused.

Now, voters are privy to more than just Johnson’s inbox and poor punctuation. On April 29, a popular newsletter revealed that Johnson’s personal phone number is not just held by Westminster journalists, Fleet Street editors, and an unknown number of young women, but is freely available on the internet. And what’s more, it has been for the past 15 years.

But it was brought to light by a digital gossip rag, Popbitch, a longtime source of celebrity scandal, media gossip, and political tip-offs. Its top story this week? “A numbers game: Hoping not to butt-dial Boris.” Discussing Johnson’s refusal to change his number, the newsletter asked maliciously, “It’s not as though the Prime Minister’s personal phone number could just be floating out there on the internet, is it? It would be absolutely insane if it was tacked on to the bottom of an old press release that he dished out freely while MP for Henley, and Shadow Minister for Higher Education.” 

LONDON—As a columnist, now-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was known for his rambling literary style, something he’s managed to top now with his well-publicized texting tone. This week, the public has seen messages from Johnson to vacuum mogul James Dyson from 2020 assuring him that he would “fix” a tax situation for the billionaire’s staff. Concerns were raised in and around the British government about the apparent ease with which anyone might text the prime minister directly for a favor. The U.K.’s most senior civil servant, Simon Case, reportedly advised Johnson to change his phone number. Apparently, he refused.

Now, voters are privy to more than just Johnson’s inbox and poor punctuation. On April 29, a popular newsletter revealed that Johnson’s personal phone number is not just held by Westminster journalists, Fleet Street editors, and an unknown number of young women, but is freely available on the internet. And what’s more, it has been for the past 15 years.

But it was brought to light by a digital gossip rag, Popbitch, a longtime source of celebrity scandal, media gossip, and political tip-offs. Its top story this week? “A numbers game: Hoping not to butt-dial Boris.” Discussing Johnson’s refusal to change his number, the newsletter asked maliciously, “It’s not as though the Prime Minister’s personal phone number could just be floating out there on the internet, is it? It would be absolutely insane if it was tacked on to the bottom of an old press release that he dished out freely while MP for Henley, and Shadow Minister for Higher Education.” 

It took rabid journalists all of seconds to Google “MP for Henley + phone number” to find this old think tank press release from 2006, before Johnson was even mayor of London, and which bizarrely remains online as of Friday. Considering how many people already had his contact details, it was quick work to match the digits—Popbitch had it right.

It was the culmination of another terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for Johnson and his government.

Technology journalists fell over themselves to muse on the implications, including the risk of hacking or surveillance. A former national security advisor warned of hostile foreign interference. One of Johnson’s ministers tried to spin it as a sign of his approachability, while another predictably blamed the BBC for publishing a story on Popbitch’s scoop. A beleaguered opposition used it as another stick with which to beat Johnson. (Johnson finally ditched the number on Friday.)

It was the culmination of another terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week for Johnson and his government, which all came to a head during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament. Labour leader Keir Starmer relentlessly—as if he was back in his lawyer days—pushed Johnson on how the refurbishment of his apartment was funded and described his government as characterized by “dodgy contracts, jobs for mates, and cash for access.” Amid a devastating (and amusingly petty) mudslinging-match with the prime minister’s former right-hand man Dominic Cummings, as well as ongoing investigations over the renovations, the phone imbroglio is nothing more than an embarrassment for Johnson. (Among British prime ministers, he’s had plenty of company this week; former Labor leader Tony Blair showed up on TV with a short-lived but long-maned mullet.)

But between the Dyson desperation and his fiancee’s tasteless interior design, Johnson has once again becoming a laughingstock. That might have flown when he was London’s affably bumbling mayor, suspended awkwardly from a zip line. But it looks increasingly untenable in a post-Brexit Britain, trying to establish itself on the global stage, even as it flirts with the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe. And on the domestic stage, his chummy persona has taken on a callous tint amid reports that he lost his temper over a third lockdown in autumn, allegedly telling ministers to let “bodies pile high in their thousands.” Previously friendly tabloids such as the Daily Mail and the Sun have been apoplectic. Add that to the ongoing border tensions and violence in Northern Ireland, the resignation of Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster, and the “disastrous” failure to secure a post-Brexit fishing trade deal with Norway, and the prime minister’s fallback on Britain’s successful vaccine rollout is looking increasingly tired. 

What this very English scandal tells us about the prime minister’s arrogance, his sense of impunity, his disregard for norms, and his performative disavowal of propriety is perhaps best left to qualified professionals. What it says about the incompetence and digital illiteracy of his staff, however, is another matter entirely. It matters less what an embarrassingly amateur oversight means for risks to national security than what it tells us about the British government’s attitude toward security. After a week of consternation surrounding Johnson’s personal accessibility—and his bizarre texts—it is astonishing that not a single member of his entourage thought to simply Google the number.

The episode, in which Popbitch, a 1990s-style newsletter that still looks like it was written on a typewriter, simply dug up an interesting and potentially damning tidbit on the prime minister, is a throwback. So is Johnson. For journalism, it seems, the old ways are the best. For the prime minister, less so. He may have finally changed his phone number, but will he ever change his ways?

Harriet Marsden is a freelance journalist and broadcaster in London. Twitter: @harriet1marsden

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