Every stage of Boris Johnson’s political progression has been utterly ludicrous and farcical — and that extended to his downfall, or “clownfall,” as the Economist dubbed it. Suddenly, in the past few days, there was a mass exodus from the British government among cabinet ministers who professed themselves to be shocked by the prime minister’s duplicity. “A decent and responsible Government relies on honesty, integrity and mutual respect,” thundered Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis in his letter of resignation.
Well, yes. But it’s hardly news that Johnson possesses none of those qualities. Dishonesty wasn’t a bug in the BoJo operating system, it was the system itself. “People have known that Boris Johnson lies for 30 years,” says Rory Stewart, a former Conservative member of Parliament. “He’s probably the best liar we’ve ever had as a prime minister.”
In this respect, Johnson was very much like former president Donald Trump. The difference, of course, is that while Trump continues to exercise an inexplicable hold on his political party, Johnson’s grip has finally been broken. The questions are: How could Conservatives have ignored for so long what was so blindingly obvious? And how can Republicans still stay in denial?
Until this week, the Conservative Party chose to overlook Johnson’s pathological mendacity because he was so popular. The secret of his popularity was that he was terrifically entertaining. Like a certain orange-tinted former U.S. president, he did not present as a normal politician. He made a virtue of his lack of seriousness to make it seem as if he was just a regular bloke despite his posh background. He bumbled his way to the top.
But the joke wore thin when Johnson actually had to govern. He promised to miraculously make Britain stronger and wealthier by exiting the European Union; he’s achieved just the opposite. Johnson’s management of the covid pandemic was no more successful. A House of Commons committee found that Johnson “made a serious early error” by flirting with the crackpot theory that allowing people to be infected would lead to “herd immunity.” The result was “many thousands” of avoidable deaths.
Eventually, Johnson instituted a strict lockdown, but he failed to abide by it. The result was the “Partygate” scandal, as evidence emerged of Johnson and his aides illegally partying at 10 Downing Street. Johnson was finally felled by one scandal too many. His chief deputy whip, Chris Pincher (a name straight out of Dickens), had to resign after being caught groping men in a bar. Johnson professed shock, until it emerged that he had been informed of similar misbehavior in the past when he had brought Pincher into the Foreign Office.
The lessons of Johnson’s rise and fall are simple and old-fashioned: Don’t treat politics as a branch of the entertainment industry; it’s too serious for that. Knowledge and competence are important in leaders; their lack is not a virtue. And character counts above all: Someone who can’t be trusted to tell the truth can’t be trusted to govern. It’s staggering that it’s taken the Tories this long to accept those basic home truths.
What’s even more staggering is that Republicans in the United States still have not, even though Trump’s political sins are far more serious. Johnson did not, after all, incite a mob to ransack Parliament in order to stay in power. His offenses are political misdemeanors compared to Trump’s major felonies.
Why, then, is the BoJo show closing while the Trump show rolls on? In part it’s because British politics is less populist and Tories are less radicalized than Republicans; there are Murdoch-owned newspapers but no Fox “News” Channel in the U.K. It’s also because British political parties are more powerful. While Tory parliamentarians don’t choose their leader, they do winnow the field down to two candidates for a vote by the party rank and file. Even if the winner becomes prime minister, that person can be, and often is, toppled by colleagues in the cabinet and the House of Commons.
If the United States had a similar system, with the Republican establishment in control of the primaries, the likely GOP nominee in 2016 would have been Jeb Bush, not Donald Trump. And if it were routine for Congress and the Cabinet to evict underperforming presidents, Trump might not have lasted long in office.
But our political parties are too weak and our standards for evicting an incumbent are too high: The president has to commit either “high crimes and misdemeanors” or be unable to discharge “the duties of his office.” Of course, Trump did commit high crimes and he was unable to discharge his duties. But Republicans feared the wrath of their rabid base if they were to make him the first president ever removed under either the Constitution’s impeachment clause or the 25th Amendment. (Richard M. Nixon resigned before being impeached.)
Now, despite everything, Trump could still make a comeback, because he retains a Svengali-like hold on the Republican base. It’s a tribute to the British political system that Boris Johnson is finally being removed from office, and a terrible indictment of the U.S. political system that Trump — who has done far worse — could still return to it.