Less than three years after a landslide election victory, Boris Johnson leaves office as he governed: glibly and without introspection or shame. He spent most of this summer of crises — replete with record inflation and record temperatures — on holiday abroad or at Chequers, the prime minister’s sumptuous country house. He was seen traveling in a Typhoon fighter jet, giving a wonky thumbs-up from the cockpit like some blond, British version of Tom Cruise’s Maverick, and embarked on a quasi-royal farewell tour of the country. “When the herd moves,” he said of his dismissal, “it moves.” The insinuation is that he is not of the herd. He is something more exceptional.
His replacement is Liz Truss, his foreign secretary, who may seem to offer a reprieve from the bumbling chaos that defined the Johnson era. But there is no sign she will even acknowledge Johnson’s faults. She is, so far, a Margaret Thatcher impersonator with a lively Instagram account and a relationship to authenticity as addled as Johnson’s own. She was once a Liberal Democrat and a Remainer, and she is now a devout Brexiteer and the darling of the right — in no small part because she remained loyal to Johnson throughout his recent troubles, unlike her Tory rival, Rishi Sunak, whose resignation this summer precipitated Johnson’s downfall. She has spent her career reinventing herself, and she was his choice of successor: the continuity candidate.
Johnson was Britain’s first reality-television politician. He rose to national attention as a guest on the satirical game show Have I Got News for You, and I marvel at the prescience of the name. He was once a very poor journalist; he was fired from the Times of London for inventing a quotation, and his columns about the European Union were propaganda with jokes. But he is a news-maker if you want entertainment, all specious charm. The parallels with Trump are real.
He won because he stirred our appetite for dreams: that Brexit would re-create, through him, a renewal of the imperial-style power the British have lost. He spoke to the anti-intellectual and the anti-political — the sludge in the national subconscious. There was no bridge he wouldn’t try to sell. That is not just a metaphor, not for him. He lobbied for a pedestrian “garden” bridge over the Thames when he was mayor of London and a road bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland as prime minister. Where did he think these bridges would take him? Across a chasm, perhaps, that no brinkman can resist; he shackled himself to Brexit, a cause he barely believed in, like a man bound to a gurney going over a waterfall.
Johnson is the child of an unhappy marriage, sent to boarding school after his mother, a gifted artist, was hospitalized with depression. A recent biography states that she suffered a violent assault from Johnson’s father, who was a compulsive adulterer, though this is not much mentioned by his cheerleaders in the British press. As a child, he said he wanted to be “world king.” Eton College, Britain’s most gilded boarding school, and Oxford University, the strange nursery for Conservative Party leaders, did the rest. He’s all frontage — even his name is a feint. His family members call him Al. Only strangers call him Boris.
Dominic Cummings, who was the architect of Brexit and Johnson’s de facto chief of staff until he lost a power struggle with Johnson’s third wife, Carrie, told me in January that Johnson wanted only monuments, like a child proving to himself he is loved. He was obsessed with headlines, too, Cummings said, as if still fighting at some long-forgotten newspaper conference at which he had been shouted down. In the process, he squandered an 80-seat parliamentary majority, which could have been transformative.
He was a thrilling campaigner because his tactics were those of a man with Don Juan syndrome. They were seductive and novel, and they sold newspapers when little else did. I watched him win the London mayoralty in 2012 by letting voters treat him like a toy — Boris the Bear — and infecting them with his optimism, which is another feint: In private, he is solitary and morose. He dressed up as a baker (“What is the most catastrophic option?” he asked when choosing a hat). He flirted with ancient women (“Don’t ever vote for anyone else”). He tried to run a flower stall and failed jovially. It was all bonhomie then, hail fellow well met.
The “sunlit uplands” of Brexit he promised are another feint. If Truss is to be believed, they will be the fracked uplands: Fracking is one of her possible solutions to our problems alongside a bonfire of red tape — that is, a bonfire of protections for workers, consumers, and the environment — and yet more privatization and tax cuts for the rich. Nothing the Brexiteers promised has happened. Instead, there is an inflation crisis, an energy crisis, a health- and social-care crisis, and, since Truss was elected by 81,326 largely white old men in a country of 67 million people, a legitimacy crisis. Britain feels as if it first paused for Johnson’s dramas, then collapsed under them.
Johnson promised Britain sovereignty from Europe. Instead, predictably, he veered toward authoritarianism. What else is a world king going to do? Under his leadership, the media was the principal enemy. He threatened the BBC with the decimation of its funding and Channel 4 with a sell-off. Inhumane policies against refugees were chosen (he says he wants them sent to Rwanda). Culture war was incited because it moved the conversation from things he is mistrustful of (reality) to his dream world (the parallel Britain of riches and glory). The right to protest was curtailed so those who saw the reality couldn’t shout the truth of it.
Besides the iron fist, his main legacy is a culture of political corruption that will outlive him. The wallpaper scandal saw him soliciting donations for the renovation of his gaudy flat on Downing Street. In a perfect metaphor, the $966-a-roll golden wallpaper fell off the wall. When Owen Paterson, a loyal MP, broke lobbying rules, Johnson intervened to prevent his suspension. During the Partygate scandal, he lied repeatedly to Parliament. He promoted a man with a history of allegations of sexual assault. He finally admitted to meeting Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent, alone in 2018; two years later, he elevated Lebedev’s son, Evgeny — a supportive newspaper owner — to the peerage. His suspension of Parliament in 2019, designed to prevent MPs scrutinizing Brexit, was judged unlawful by the courts. During the pandemic, contracts were given to party supporters. He lost two ethics advisers, which, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is careless. Truss suggests she will not appoint a new one.
His other legacy is the quality of leadership. He could tolerate no competition and promoted mediocrities valuable only for their loyalty to him. Dominic Raab, then the foreign secretary, lay on a beach in Crete as Kabul fell. Andrea Jenkyns, an education minister, gave the finger to a crowd of protesters outside Downing Street this summer. Nadine Dorries, an ultraloyalist, called the ousting of Johnson a coup because she either doesn’t know what a coup is or considers Johnson above the law. Sitting beside Johnson, watching Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, speak in Parliament, Dorries repeatedly shouted “You’re boring” at him like a woman who has spent decades in a bar. Johnson, of course, is not boring: I give her that. Jacob Rees-Mogg, another ultraloyalist, spent one vote of the Johnson premiership lying on a bench in the House of Commons.
He is leaving, but his influence, his contempt for democratic processes, will endure. The parliamentary Conservative Party — the elected legislators rather than the membership — wanted Sunak, Brutus to Johnson’s Julius, to succeed him, but Truss is his chosen successor, and she may offer only Johnsonism without the charm. It is likely he is still campaigning. How can he not? He is never more content than in extremis, and he can prove how exceptional he is and cross his bridges in the air. His friends say he backed Truss because she will self-destruct and he will return as a hero. The prize of world king cannot be given up. What else matters?