Boris Johnson is known for using unusual language, taking part in a fair share of cringeworthy photo-ops, making sometimes calamitous gaffes as well as a history of offensive comments.

He took over as prime minister in July 2019, won a majority in the December 2019 general election and is now in charge during a global pandemic.

Johnson’s words and actions are therefore important but the Conservative Party leader has been criticised for joking at a time of devastation and accused of risking undermining public health advice.

As well as his own gaffes, Johnson has also been subject to a few popular imitations and mocked for his claims and U-turns. 

Here’s a rundown of his 12 most embarrassing moments since the start of the pandemic.

1. Boasting about shaking hands with Covid-19 patients

During his first press conference about the coronavirus on 3rd March, Johnson appeared to brag about shaking hands with patients during a visit to a hospital. Many considered this a strange and irresponsible endorsement of contact at a time when an infectious illness was rapidly spreading. The first cases of Covid-19 in the UK had been confirmed at the end of January.

2. Defending Dominic Cummings' lockdown road trip

Johnson refused to criticise or sack Dominic Cummings after his chief adviser’s 260 mile lockdown trip to Durham and eyesight test ride to Barnard Castle. Many mocked the PM’s statement on Cummings when Johnson said: “In every respect, he has acted responsibly, legally and with integrity.” Researchers from University College London later found Cummings’ breach was followed by a drop in the public’s confidence in the government and their adherence to the rules.

3. Awkwardly claiming to have only just heard of Marcus Rashford’s Free School Meals campaign

Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford has been widely lauded for campaigning on free school meals over the course of the pandemic. But Johnson was left red-faced when he first reversed the policy to not feed children in need outside of term time, claiming he was unaware of the much-publicised issue, which ministers had also defended just before the U-turn.

4. Posing for a picture by doing a press-up

In a bizarre photo-op on the front page of the Mail on Sunday on 28th June, Johnson tried to prove he was as "fit as a butcher's dog" and "full of beans" by doing what may have been a single press-up. This followed after the PM was hospitalised after contracting Covid-19. The pose was ridiculed by some who compared the act to those of TV caricatures and staged photos of authoritarian leaders.

5. Cringeworthy comebacks at PMQs

At PMQs in July, Johnson made a cringe - and insensitive - joke that Keir Starmer had “more briefs than Calvin Klein” after the opposition leader asked what the PM would like to say to bereaved families about preparation to avoid a “second wave”. Captain Underpants jokes followed but many were unimpressed. Johnson has also repeatedly tried to make “Captain Hindsight” A Thing.

6. Being accused of trespassing during his summer holiday in Scotland

In a strange turn of events, the PM and his fiancee Carrie Symonds allegedly pitched their tent on a sheep farmer’s land and had a campfire without his knowledge during the summer holidays. This coincided with the fallout from the exam results fiasco, during which Johnson had previously resisted calls to return to Westminster.  

7. Being subject to an embarrassing burn by former PM Gordon Brown

Former PM and Labour leader Brown mocked Johnson’s regular use of Latin on Good Morning Britain to deliver a cutting remark about taking responsibility. Speaking about criticism regarding the number of government U-turns, Brown said: “The funny thing about Boris Johnson is there are two Latin words... he doesn’t seem to know: mea culpa.” The phrase translates to 'through my fault’. 

8. Repeatedly being impersonated by comedian Matt Lucas

Little Britain star Matt Lucas captured Johnson’s bumbling coronavirus update in May with a popular parody video: “Go to work. Don’t go to work. Go outside. Don’t go outside. And then we will or won’t … something or other.” The comedian later went viral again when he imitated the PM to open the latest series of The Great British Bake Off.

9. His TV blunder about investment in the NHS

The PM was left red-faced while being interviewed on BBC's Look North after being unable to answer a question on investment in a Leeds hospital despite just having bragged about a “big package” of funding. He started reading unrelated information off a briefing sheet and eventually shouted at aides to supply him with the number.  

10. Being trolled by Cassetteboy

Johnson's leadership was also ridiculed by Cassetteboy in a “Boris Vs Covid” mashup video. The clip mocks the PM for his handling of the pandemic and the exam results fiasco, with Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ replaced with “a mutant algorithm trick”.

11. ‘You’re on mute’: Falling foul of the classic WfH experience

The PM appeared to be put on mute in the middle of a live address about how England would come out of its national lockdown to much hilarity in the House of Commons. After Health Secretary Matt Hancock had to stand in while MPs waited for Johnson to return, the PM said: “The problem does not appear to be our end, so I hope viewers will not think I’m in any way trying to avoid scrutiny by honourable members.”

12. His propensity for seasonal jokes

Johnson’s announcements around restrictions at Christmas were filled with cringey festive puns, which some claimed could undermine the seriousness of the situation. The PM’s favoured lines included “the virus doesn’t know it’s Christmas” and “tis the season to be jolly, but it is also the season to be jolly careful”.

More: The four key lessons from Covid that should shape policy decisions everywhere


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