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‘A fire-eater who’s run out of fuel’: European press lays into Boris Johnson

Continental media are in no mood to donner un break to the British PM, sensing the ‘beginning of the end’

Jon Henley in Paris
Tue 21 Dec 2021 13.08 GMT

Last modified on Tue 21 Dec 2021 14.22 GMT

For El País in Spain, his “magic has vanished”. For Libération in France he is “the only actor in the Boris Johnson show – which is, increasingly, a flop”. In Germany, Der Spiegel asked how long Britain could last being governed “almost exclusively by defiant optimism”.

As the scandals mount, the approval ratings plunge, the electoral defeats accumulate, the rebellions multiply, his trusted Brexit lieutenant jumps ship and the Omicron variant runs rampant, continental media seem – to coin a phrase – in no mood to donner un break to Britain’s beleaguered prime minister.

“Johnson says he accepts responsibility,” wrote Libération. “But for what? The spectacular defeat of his party in North Shropshire, which he himself triggered by supporting the local MP, accused of corruption? The multiple parties under his roof when the country was in lockdown?”

Does he also accept responsibility for “the total absence, for months, of any social distancing measures or masks” in the face of a rampaging virus that has killed nearly 150,000 people, the paper asked. And for “the ailing economy; the plunging foreign investments; Brexit, which still has not delivered the slightest positive result?”

Johnson, the paper’s former London correspondent, Sonia Delesalle-Stolper, said, “makes nobody laugh any more. What legitimacy does he have, today, to ask the least effort of the British people? He has repeatedly shown his moral compass is either wholly inexistent or wildly askew.”

With few friends, no real clan, surrounded by “mediocre politicians drunk on the unexpected power conferred on them by the referendum”, he is a one-man band – and his future looks far from assured, she said.

Der Spiegel said bluntly that barely two years after “the apparently glorious election victory of the political entertainer”, Johnson today resembles “a fire-eater who’s run out of fuel: no more sparks, no flickering flames, only cold smoke rising over Downing Street.”

The paper’s London correspondent, Jörg Schindler, however, concluded it was not yet certain the prime minister with “a Pinocchio-like relationship with the truth” was about to leave the stage. Despite partygate, wallpapergate and countless other scandals, Johnson had “never made a secret of the fact that he only knows one moral code: his”.

He has always been, the magazine said, “the naked emperor who cried: ‘Look, I have no clothes.’ That has made him unassailable.” Even with his polling at record lows, he will not resign. And for him to be kicked out by his party, “it would first have to recover the decency it largely lost when it surrendered to its election winner”.

But the truth of the last two years, Der Spiegel said, is that “Johnson has shaped the Tories in his own image”, shifting the party sharply to the right to accomplish “his life’s work, Brexit”, removing older, moderate heavyweights and replacing them with “young loyalists who owe their election solely to Johnson”.

Forecasting “the beginning of the end”, however, Die Welt suggested growing discontent in his parliamentary party was precisely Johnson’s biggest threat: “So far, their motto has been that Johnson’s careless handling of the truth was the price to be paid for electoral victory. But Tory MPs are increasingly finding themselves caught up in an endless loop of new Johnson scandals.”

El País said it was clear that Johnson’s “electoral magic has run out”. After a damaging parliamentary rebellion in which nearly 100 Tory MPs rejected his Covid measures, voters in North Shropshire, “tired of his jokes and fed up with a succession of recent scandals, simply turned their backs on him”, it said.

Downing Street may be confident the Christmas break “will reduce the tensions”, said the paper’s London correspondent, Rafa de Miguel, but the threat of the highly transmissible Omicron variant “points to a tough winter, and is combining with public outrage to weigh on the credibility of a prime minister that is currently in tatters”.

In an editorial, the Spanish daily said the sudden departure of the government’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost, further weakened Johnson – but would perhaps give the EU a chance to reset relations with London and a prime minister who until now had “always used Brexit as the wild card to get him out of domestic difficulty”.

Facing an “onslaught from Omicron just before Christmas, and supply chain problems exacerbated by Brexit that have left the country without truckers and with half-empty supermarket shelves”, the last thing Johnson needed, the paper said, “is a bloody conflict with the European Union”.

Spain’s ABC daily, meanwhile, said “Johnson is living through hard times”, facing several open fronts and “what could be his toughest week” since coming to power in the summer of 2019.

“In just a few days, the premier has witnessed for himself how his approval rating has plummeted to its lowest point in the polls – proof of his disconnection from normal people, and even his lifelong supporters,” it said.

The Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant warned Frost’s departure was “a new blow for the prime minister after a rebellion by his parliamentary party and a defeat in a byelection”, adding that the problem had now become about “Johnson’s personality. His great strength was winning elections. If that doesn’t work any more, there is really not much left.”

Additional reporting by Sam Jones in Madrid

About Ian

Retired Clergyman, and former RAF person. Lives in Kirkcudbright, SW Scotland. One wife. Two children, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren scattered across UK, Europe and the USA. Long time member of the European Movement, and latterly of the Scottish National Party. ""Here's to us; who is as good as us? Damn few, and they're all dead"
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