By David Osland
Three days before Christmas in 1989, the Romanian state bussed citizens into the main square in central Bucharest to applaud a speech from the country’s viciously surreal Stalinist dictator.
Eight minutes into Nicolae Ceaușescu’s oration, the crowd began to boo. The Romanian revolution was underway.
The following day, Ceaușescu and his wife fled the presidential palace by helicopter. By Christmas Day itself they were dead, executed by firing squad after a trial by a self-styled National Salvation Front.
Thirty-two years later to the week, I was reminded of the incident by reports that hundreds of spectators at the World Darts Championship at Ally Pally took time out from cheering on the players to break into impromptu chants of ‘Stand up if you hate Boris!’
As far as I understand darts culture – which admittedly is not very much at all – this is exactly the kind of blokey beery audience to which Britain’s prime minister is said to appeal. If he’s losing these people, he’s losing the country.
The wound may not prove fatal. The ready parallel that springs immediately to mind is the slow handclap accorded to Tony Blair at the Women’s Institute conference in 2000, and Blair survived that.
But there are also reports of similar spontaneous venom among football crowds and even pilled-up clubbers. The national mood appears to be changing.
There comes a point at which politicians go from being merely unpopular to being utterly toxic to their party’s fortunes. And with the partygate scandal clearly cutting through to the public, Boris Johnson may finally have met his Ceaușescu moment.
That will have obvious consequences for our politics in 2022. Many rightwing commentators, and even senior Tories, openly speculate that a poor showing at the local elections in May would spark a leadership challenge that Johnson would be likely to lose.
I have known kids I hung around with as a teenage punk go on to find major league rock stardom, activists from my Labour Students days reach ministerial rank under New Labour, junior reporters on publications I have worked on over the decades become famous and admired journalists.
My observation would be that adulation changes people, perhaps fostering a sense of personal invincibility.
Only Jeremy Corbyn has been an exception to this rule. The outbreak of Jezza Mania in 2015 hugely amused those who knew him as abackbencher, but he somehow managed to remain grounded, both then and through everything that has happened since.
But Boris Johnson gives the appearance of being so insulated from the real world that he we will not appreciate the extent to which the ground is shifting.
As last week’s revolt over coronavirus measures underlines, he cannot even depend on the loyalty of Tory backbench voting fodder any longer.
The Christmas and New Year is likely to provide him with the kind of respite enjoyed by boxers who are saved by the bell.
Perhaps the months ahead will see redoubled efforts to win back stardust status, in the form of a string of populist pronouncements, targeting the usual Tory targets. What is not clear is whether this will be enough.
Labour needs to factor this new situation into its calculations. Whatever the merits of a strategy built on constructive support for the government at a time of crisis – and not all of us were convinced by them – the knife now has to be sharpened.
Johnson is looking at a lucrative retirement, raking in hundreds of thousands of pounds from his potboiler biography of Shakespeare, rather than summary justice at the hands of a kangaroo court.
His ouster will mean, in the first instance, the third successive Tory prime minister to take office without winning a general election first.
But it will also boost Labour’s chances when the contest does come. Time to aim for the Bullseye.
David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland
Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts