foreign interests

Good-bye, Boris Johnson

How the king of Brexit fell so far, so quickly.

Photo: Martyn Wheatley/Parsons Media/eyevine/REDUX/Parsons Media / eyevine/Redux
Photo: Martyn Wheatley/Parsons Media/eyevine/REDUX/Parsons Media / eyevine/Redux

“I tell you that the prime minister will not go early — because it is simply not in his nature,” then-columnist Boris Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2006. “It is a wonderful and necessary fact of political biology that we never know when our time is up. We kid ourselves that we must stay because we would be ‘letting people down’ or that there is a ‘job to be finished.’ In reality, we are just terrified of the comedown.”

Johnson was writing about Tony Blair, but he may as well have been describing his future self. Now it is his turn to face the comedown. Over several months, Britain’s embattled prime minister has resisted calls to quit amid spiraling scandals, a flailing economy, and plummeting popularity. On July 6, mounting frustration among Conservatives culminated in a record-breaking number of them resigning from government. When Johnson appointed replacements, they turned on him, too. Between Tuesday and Thursday, Britain had three different Education ministers.

Johnson succumbed to the inevitable: His position was untenable. “Them’s the breaks,” he said in a speech outside 10 Downing Street on Thursday. “I want to tell you how sorry I am to be giving up the best job in the world … It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister.”

Johnson’s speech displayed many of the qualities that had carried him to Number 10. He indulged in self-aggrandizement, reminding his audience that in 2019 he won “the biggest Conservative majority since 1987.” He dodged any accountability for his predicament, pinning blame instead on the media — which is overwhelmingly pro-Conservative — and the “herd instinct” of his colleagues. And he showcased his infamous ability to say two opposing things at once: In this case, that he was stepping down and continuing as prime minister. “I have today appointed a cabinet to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place,” he said, rejecting the explicit demands of Conservatives to leave now.

The absence of the word resign from Johnson’s ostensible resignation speech has stoked panic that he has not given up the game entirely. The Conservative leader has built his reputation on slipping out of scandals — most recently, the seemingly fatal revelations of illegal parties at Downing Street during the pandemic — and he seems to thrive in conditions of adversity. “My little theory about Boris is that it’s when he is really down that he’s at his most dangerous, and that you should buy him like a stock, like a distressed stock, and he’ll be back,” Lord Charles Moore, Johnson’s former boss at the Telegraph, told me in March.

But at this point, any great escape is bound to fail. A recent survey found that almost 300 of the party’s 360-odd lawmakers are against him, and no politician can lead without their party. Johnson is gone, leaving behind a legacy that is as messy as his famously tousled hair. Just three years ago he commanded a supermajority in Parliament, having mastered the confounding politics of Brexit. How did he fall so far, so quickly?

Johnson’s reluctance to resign is easy to understand. He has spent his entire life — from the corridors of Eton and Oxford to his columns for the Daily Telegraph and Spectator to his attention-seeking antics as mayor of London — dreaming of becoming prime minister. Solely with this ambition in mind, he championed Britain’s detrimental departure from the European Union, helped to topple two Conservative prime ministers, and left a trail of betrayal and broken promises behind him. After his towering election win in 2019, however, it all seemed to have paid off. With an 80-seat majority, Johnson could boast an unusually broad appeal: It was the first election where more low-income people voted Conservative rather than Labour. “We have changed the political map of this country,” he declared.

As recently as last October, Johnson’s leadership still seemed unassailable. Many anticipated a decade in power. “Boris Johnson now squats like a giant toad across British politics,” the Sunday Times’ chief political commentator, Tim Shipman, tweeted on October 6. “He has expanded the Overton window in both directions. Praising bankers and drug companies, while tight on immigration and woke history. Cheered for lauding the NHS and pro LGBT. Where does Labour find a gap?” Johnson himself marveled at the fact his leadership seemed “to be worryingly hitch-free: We will need to concoct some sort of diversion or row.”

He couldn’t have come up with a better row than Partygate, as it came to be known. But Johnson’s ascendancy was always more precarious than it seemed; courting controversy and creating chaos is second nature to him. Long before his standing collapsed, his record in government was a litany of failure and corruption: a devastatingly mishandled pandemic, with Britain enduring one of the highest death rates in the world; a disruptive exit from the E.U. on terms that, not long after agreeing to them, Johnson himself was seeking to override; unprecedented access to and favors for Conservative Party donors; compulsive deceit toward the public and Parliament; and much more. Last month, Johnson’s ethics adviser quit, the second to do so in two years. Johnson suggested that he wouldn’t be looking to hire a third one.

Any of these scandals could have sunk a different leader. The one that is now heralded as dealing the final blow seems almost quaint by comparison. On June 30, it emerged that a Conservative politician who oversaw discipline and welfare in the party, Chris Pincher, had allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Johnson initially denied any knowledge of the allegations, until further revelations made his pleas to ignorance impossible: Johnson knew about them and hired him anyway. “Pincher by name and pincher by nature” was how Johnson reportedly referred to him.

In a generous telling of events, Johnson’s colleagues were so shocked by their leader’s deceit and indifference to sexual-misconduct allegations that they resigned en masse. Some international observers have lapped up this narrative. “We are watching a still-functioning democracy dispatch its bombastic populist leader because his amorality and narcissistic dishonesty were simply too much,” Michelle Goldberg wrote in the New York Times. But although the timing suggested a connection, the ministers resigning rarely made any mention of the Pincher scandal (unsurprising, perhaps, seeing as there are 56 MPs with sexual-misconduct claims against them).

In a more realistic version of events, Conservatives sought to dispatch Johnson simply because they realized that his amorality and narcissistic dishonesty could no longer win them votes. The crucial moment came not with the Pincher revelations or any specific scandal but when, on June 23, Johnson lost two special elections in one day: the first in a traditional Tory area in the South, the second in a post-industrial seat in the North. The Conservatives hadn’t lost the former in almost a century. Until 2019, the Conservatives hadn’t won the latter in almost as long. The double defeat proved that Johnson’s magic had worn off: He was now redrawing the political map against himself. The Pincher scandal meant Conservatives could wield the knife while claiming the moral high ground.

The question for Conservatives is what comes next. The aspiring successors to Johnson’s throne are unlikely to offer more than a revolution in manners: tougher on sleaze and a few less lies, while the fundamental pillars of Tory Britain — rising poverty, underfunded public services, low taxes on the rich, xenophobia and culture wars — remain in place. These are the most damaging tendencies of the Conservative Party — they predate Johnson and will almost certainly outlast him.

Johnson, meanwhile, is expected to resume his role as a mischievous, overpaid journalist for the Tory press. The newspaper column is his natural milieu: He can write what he likes, wake up when he wants, and be free from all the pressures of public office while still attracting the nation’s attention. The right-wing press recognizes him as one of its own, and it has rallied to his defense in his final hours. “What the hell have they done?” the front page of the Mail cried on July 8, condemning Tory disloyalty and “a party in the grip of a collective hysteria.” But this is only a way of returning favors. Paul Dacre, the Mail’s veteran editor, is set to be among Johnson’s final appointments to the House of Lords, where he will join 36 other members of the trade; a sixth of them have been put there by Johnson.

“They don’t put up statues to journalists,” Johnson reportedly once quipped, explaining his desire to leave journalism for politics. But they don’t always put up statues of prime ministers, either. During the 2019 election, Johnson pledged to unite his party and the country, having done so much to stoke divisions over the previous few years. In the end, he delivered on this promise — by uniting everyone against him. He leaves behind an embittered nation, its deep-set problems starker than ever. Nevertheless, with so many allies in the media, Johnson can at least be sure that some of the history books will be kind: His friends are writing the first drafts.

Good-bye, Boris Johnson