The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Boris Johnson’s fall shows the limits of shamelessness as a superpower

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a resignation speech on Thursday in London. (Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)
Placeholder while article actions load

BoJo has finally lost his mojo. The United Kingdom’s mendacious, buffoonish prime minister is gone, or at least going. The question historians will ask is how he ascended so high in the first place.

The quick and easy answer is that he used his superpower, which is complete and utter shamelessness. But his rise and fall suggest a deeper — and, perhaps, ultimately encouraging — explanation that involves the allure, but also the limits, of red-meat populism.

I remember Johnson from the early 1990s when I was London bureau chief for The Post and he was a journalist, and I use the term loosely, working as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, the favorite newspaper of Britain’s conservative establishment. He had landed there after being fired from the Times of London for making up a quote, and not just any quote, but a bit of historical nonsense Johnson attributed to his own godfather. Reporting from European Union headquarters, he was a talented, ambitious, entertaining fraud.

By then, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had already undertaken the first of his many self-reinventions. Born in 1964 to a family of high-born British intellectuals living temporarily in the United States, he had been Alex Johnson growing up. But when the family returned to Britain and he went off to school at Eton College and Oxford University — stations of the cross for the ruling class — he began using his second name because it was more memorable.

Follow Eugene Robinson's opinionsFollow

In Brussels, he dishonestly played to his readers’ “little England” nationalist skepticism about Britain being part of the E.U. His specialty was finding some nugget of information in an irrelevant and forgotten document gathering dust in the E.U. archives and spinning it into front-page fake news — reports that dastardly “Eurocrats” would shrink standardized condom sizes because Italians needed smaller ones, or that they had set official parameters for the extent to which bananas could curve.

None of it was really true. But Johnson’s funny and sensationalist “scoops” made him a star.

Using the same shtick, he rose to become a columnist, a magazine editor, a television commentator and a celebrity. Assorted scandals in his personal life — too numerous to detail here — gave him a persona as something of a rogue, and he perfected the studied tousling of his hair to make it look as if it had last been cut with hedge trimmers. He was ready to enter politics.

Johnson’s major accomplishment as mayor of London and as a member of Parliament was drawing attention to himself. When Theresa May was prime minister, she made him foreign secretary as a way of getting him out of her hair by thrusting him into everyone else’s. But he saw May’s difficulty in negotiating a Brexit agreement for Britain to leave the E.U. as his big opportunity, and he helped engineer her downfall — and his own rise to leadership of the Conservative Party.

Johnson recognized that crowd-pleasing, fact-free populism was the political zeitgeist, so he became a slightly less bombastic, much better-read Donald Trump. And in 2019 he fulfilled his ambition to become prime minister.

He announced his resignation as Conservative Party leader Thursday after more than 50 of his ministers quit, many writing self-righteous exit letters expressing shock and outrage at Johnson’s myriad lies and scandals — among them “Partygate,” his alcohol-fueled social gatherings held while the rest of the country was in mandatory lockdown because of covid. But those ministers knew all along who he was. They abandoned him when they saw that he was taking their party, and their careers, down with him.

“Them’s the breaks,” Johnson said in his not-terribly gracious resignation speech, insisting he will stay ensconced at 10 Downing Street until the party picks his replacement.

I dearly hope that those are the breaks. I hope Republicans in this country, and politicians elsewhere who are surfing the global populist wave, learn a lesson from Johnson’s demise. Truth eventually caught up with him. Facts ultimately mattered. Performance routines finally wore thin.

And Britons remembered the unrealistic promises Johnson made that were never kept. Most importantly, after telling voters that practically everything would be better after Brexit, he has not even been able to iron out the final details of a separation agreement. Many economists predict that because of Brexit, the current worldwide surge of inflation will be worse and longer-lasting in Britain than in the rest of Europe or the United States. Johnson’s nation — and his party — will be stuck with his legacy for a long time.

Johnson was steadfast and resolute in providing British support for Ukraine against Russia’s brutal aggression, so that merits praise. And since he imagines himself a latter-day Winston Churchill, don’t rule out an attempted comeback. Like a certain resident of Mar-a-Lago, Johnson will always be a legend in his own mind.

Loading...