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Great men on vacation: The reporting of Boris’ holiday

The objections to Boris Johnson’s recent holiday to a private villa on the Costa del Sol fall into two broad categories. The first are reasonable yet misguided; the second are completely unhelpful for the politically minded and contribute to a larger problem with political reporting.

On the first objection, the Daily Mail headline read ‘Boris Johnson quietly reveals Zac Goldsmith, the millionaire minister he made a peer, gave him and his family a summer holiday at £25,000-a-night Marbella estate for FREE‘ and, on the other side of the aisle, the Guardian’s headline was similar ‘Goldsmith family funded Boris Johnson’s Marbella holiday‘. They do have a point. The Johnson cabinet is, to use Kier Starmer’s words “wallowing in sleaze” and, more distressingly, they hope to solve this by going deeper into scandal, shoving through bills that curtail the power of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone. Luckily, the Johnson administration backed down under public pressure, but Stone knows now that if she wants to dig deeper into Boris’ renovations, his Tory donor financed holiday to the Caribbean in 2019, or even Matt Hancock’s handling of government contracts, then her time is running out.

I doubt however that one of the many items on her hit list will be Johnson’s holiday to Costa del Sol. Boris gave out the peerage and role of environment secretary to Zac Goldsmith in late 2019 and Goldsmith was already a friend of his wife before this. Boris could not successfully plan the Christmas lockdown a week in advance, and I find it hard to believe he planned his holiday three years in advance and expended substantial political capital on it. This seems to me clearly like a case of nepotism informing a cabinet position and peerage placement. It is not a bribe-by-villa.

Coming to the second objection, I thought it was put clearest by Jason Moore from the Majorca Daily Bulletin, no doubt snubbed by Johnson’s choice of holiday location, who concluded that “if you feel the need for a holiday in the sun then perhaps you shouldn’t be PM”. Though not as crudely stated, this sentiment is also seen in the numerous headlines: ‘Boris Johnson goes on holiday to Marbella –  but is the timing right?‘, ‘No 10 defends Boris Johnson’s holiday in Spain amid energy crisis‘, and ‘Boris Johnson ‘jets off for holiday in Marbella’ leaving behind UK in crisis‘. All these headlines question Johnson’s timing and contrast his holiday to the UK’s oil crisis, my favourite of which is The Mirror’s sassy headline ‘Boris Johnson leaves luxury holiday estate in Spain to finally return to crisis-hit UK.’ Of course, some defend his right to vacation, including a Daily Mail commentator who says that he must rest for the “mighty battles” ahead, which include such menaces as “overly expensive green schemes” and “illegal migration, especially across the channel”.

In my opinion, both sides make the same mistake here. They obsess over the leading man, either worrying that the holiday leaves us stranded or that it is necessary for him to rest before single-handedly facing the battles ahead. All of it leads to propping up the cult of personality that separates Boris from his party infrastructure. This is greatly appreciated by No. 10, who have obsessively insisted that Boris is always their commander in chief. If he is on holiday he is in “regular WhatsApp contact“, if he is lying in a hospital bed he “continues to lead“, and if he is in critical condition he will “be back at the helm in short order“.

All together it becomes quite a ghoulish use of the great-man theory and a thoroughly ill-conceived way of understanding government. The inadequacies in immigration policy, lorry driver pay, green energy funding, and fuel reserves that led to the crisis in question have little to do with Boris’ guiding hand and a lot to do with the last 20 years of governance. Moreover, if we are to look for immediate action, is Boris Johnson the only true voice of the people? Could we not press the Secretary for Energy, Greg Hands, or the numerous professional advisors surrounding him, or the many MPs elected by their district? Even when Boris returns these are the people who will affect, and often take, the decisions of the Government, and obsessively focusing on Boris lets him be the one-man army he wishes he was. No one should be too important to take a week off work, least of all Boris Johnson.

Image Credit: Arno Mikkor / CC BY 2.0

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