April 30, 2021 at 4:43 PM
LONDON As a columnist, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was known for his rambling literary style, something he has managed to dominate now with his much publicized texting tone. This week, the public saw messages from Johnson to vacuum mogul James Dyson from 2020 assuring him that he would sort out a tax situation for billionaire staff. Concerns have been raised in and around the UK governmenton the apparent ease with which anyone could text the Prime Minister directly asking for a favor. Britain’s top civil servant, Simon Case, would have advised Johnson to change his phone number. Apparently he refused.
Now voters know about more than the Johnsons Inbox and bad punctuation. On April 29, a popular newsletter revealed that Johnsons’ personal phone number is not only held by Westminster reporters, Fleet Street editors and an unknown number of young women, but is available for free on the Internet. And what more is it for the last 15 years.
But it was brought to light by a digital gossip rag, Popbitch, a long-standing source of celebrity scandal, media gossip and political denunciations. His top story this week? A numbers game: hoping not to call Boris. Discussing Johnsons’ refusal to change his number, the bulletin maliciously asked. It’s not like the Prime Minister’s personal phone number can just float around the internet, is it? It would be absolutely insane if it were glued to the bottom of an old press release he distributed freely while serving as a Member of Parliament for Henley and shadow minister for higher education.
It took rabid reporters every second for Google MP to find the Henley + phone number this old press release from the think tank from 2006, even before Johnson was mayor of London, and which strangely stays online on Friday. Considering how many people already have his contact details, it was quick to match the numbersPopbitch was right.
Tech journalists have fallen on their own to think the implications, including the risk of hacking or surveillance. Former national security adviser warned of hostility foreign interference. One of the Johnson ministers tried to pass him off as a sign of its accessibility, while another blamed the BBC for post a story on Popbitchs scoop. A besieged opposition used him as another stick to beat Johnson. (Johnson finally dropped the number on Friday.)
It was the culmination of another terrible, horrible, not good, very bad week for Johnson and his government, all of which hit a tipping point during the weekly Premiers’ Questions in Parliament. Labor leader Keir Starmer relentlessly, for while he was back in the days of his lawyer, pushed Johnson on how his apartment renovation was funded and described his government as characterized by questionable contracts, jobs for friends and money for access. Amid a devastating (and fun) muddy match with former Prime Minister Dominic Cummings’ right-hand man, as well as ongoing investigations into the renovations, the phone mess is nothing more than an embarrassment for Johnson. (Among UK prime ministers there was plenty of company this week; former Labor leader Tony Blair appeared on television with a short-lived but long-maned mule.)
But between Dyson’s desperation and his fiancées’ insipid interior design, Johnson has once again become a laughing stock. It could have flown when he was affable mayor of London, awkwardly hanging from a zipline. But this looks increasingly untenable in a post-Brexit Britain, trying to establish itself on the global stage, even as it flirts with the highest death toll from COVID-19 in Europe. And on the domestic scene, his boyfriend character has taken on a calloused tint amid reports that he lost his temper more than a third lockdown in the fall, telling ministers to let stacked bodiesby thousands. Previously user-friendly tabloids such as the Daily mail and The Sun were apoplectic. Add that to tensions and border violence in Northern Ireland, the resignation of Northern Irish Prime Minister Arlene Foster, and the disastrous failure to strike a post-Brexit fisheries trade deal with Norway, and the Prime Ministers’ withdrawal from the success of the British vaccine deployment seems increasingly tired.
What this very English scandal tells us about the arrogance of prime ministers, their sense of impunity, their contempt for standards and their performative disavowal of convenience is perhaps best left to qualified professionals. What he says about the incompetence and digital illiteracy of his staff, however, is a whole different matter. What embarrassing amateur surveillance of national security risks means matters less than what it tells us about the UK government’s attitude to security. After a week of dismay around Johnsons’ personal accessibility and bizarre texts, it’s astonishing that not a single member of his entourage has thought of simply searching for the number on Google.
The episode, in which Popbitch, a 1990s-style newsletter that always seems to have been written on a typewriter, simply unearthing an interesting and potentially damning tidbit about the Prime Minister, is a throwback. The same goes for Johnson. For journalism, it seems the old ways are the best. For the Prime Minister, less. He may have finally changed his phone number, but will he ever change his ways?
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