The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Exit, Boris Johnson. Sort of — he’s still hogging the stage.

In the end the British prime minister was brought down by his own rules, his relentless bluff finally called

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday outside 10 Downing Street. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
Comment

Perhaps it was always going to end like this.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political career had seemed to defy gravity, much like Donald Trump’s before him. His was a strange new kind of politics, with its own dazzling rules. He improved on previous world leaders’ use of focus groups and spin doctors to formulate and angle their policies for greatest public acceptance by dispensing with the policies altogether. People-pleasing rhetoric alone won him a thumping 80-seat majority in Parliament.

A former columnist who had been fired from the Times of London for fabricating journalism, Johnson employed politics that were not so much spin as spun: an endless candy floss of gleeful nothingness. Even now, nobody can tell you with certainty what Johnson might or might not have truly believed. He was, colleagues thought, instinctively libertarian, yet he expanded draconian anti-protest powers, and the Brexit he claims as his chief legacy erected the largest barrier to free trade in almost half a century. It wasn’t just that his views were flexible, his critics said; they weren’t even his views. Former Tory grandee Lord Heseltine once said of him that he was “a man who waits to see the way the crowd is running, then dashes in front and says, ‘Follow me!’ ”

Johnson the undergraduate classicist, Eton rhetorician and middlebrow biographer was fond of making quotations, stitching together attitudes and throwing out highfalutin references to fascinate and flatter down-home audiences. It was a verbal patchwork, a kind of shifting cosplay that enabled him to code-switch when things got tough. He would waffle in demotic English and then answer a charge with a quotation from Seneca. He could be charming. He was rarely substantive, but who cared? He was mainlining applause from the public gallery.

If this made Johnson a maddeningly ephemeral presence, even as he embarked on his term as a populist prime minister in 2019, it was his gift for rhetoric that seemed to make him untouchable. Interviewers would land direct hits, and he would dismiss them with jokes. Economists would point to the folly of a course of action, and he would pull out a bon mot or caricature them as “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters.” Critics and the Parliamentary opposition needed to get wise, he hinted, or lighten up.

He was an entertainer playing politician. And while the economy held course, he exhibited a disregard for steering the ship at all.

Johnson’s premiership was a game played by rules he was devising on the hoof, and one that the rest of Parliament — and media, colleagues and opponents alike — had a hard time following. He would float ideas, couched as jokes, and turn jokes into policy. Whatever seemed to garner the most applause — cue Trump’s obsession with ratings — he would pursue.

He used his premiership more as content engine than political force. When he was under fire for partying during his government’s own strictly enforced pandemic lockdown, when he was accused of compromising the government’s integrity with illicit Russian influence, or when it was discovered that his government had adopted a loose approach to granting multimillion-pound pandemic contracts to friends and relatives, he would simply hijack the headlines with another blast against the European Union, or a threat to privatize the prestigious British TV network Channel 4, or another hand grenade of shock and dismay tossed into the public arena. His thoughts regularly made their way into the conservative newspaper the Daily Telegraph via editorials attributed to “sources close to the Prime Minister.”

A British boor is just Trump with a posh accent and veneer of ironic detachment

A chummy relationship with right-wing media figures insulated Johnson, and it indulged his aversion to blowback or critique. Through lockdown, he stuck to scripted addresses while throwing junior ministers to TV interview spots where they would be grilled. Others would look like shifty politicos; he would remain the jovial deliverer of cheer. He hid in a refrigerator to avoid one interviewer; stole the cellphone of another when the journalist tried to show him a photograph during an interview. Channel 4 got so fed up with his failure to materialize for interviews that it had an ice sculpture stand in for him during one TV debate.

Yet it was Johnson’s craving for public approval that proved his undoing.

When the pandemic Partygate scandal struck home in a way that escaped the Westminster Bubble — Britain’s version of the Beltway — he commissioned a plan to sack juniors and protect his own position. When the plan leaked, the name some reports said Johnson himself had given it, Operation Save Big Dog, sounded not like the brainchild of a jovial man but of a cowardly one. When the crowd at the queen’s televised Platinum Jubilee parade in June booed him, Conservative Party colleagues seemed to sense that Johnson might not be invulnerable after all.

He survived a vote of confidence of his party’s MPs, but just. But then came revelations that a senior colleague, Conservative deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, had been accused of sexual assault; then that Johnson had promoted Pincher despite a record of such allegations in the past; then that Johnson had lied about doing so. Again and again, ministers were pushed in front of cameras to issue what turned out to be false denials. Eventually, they withdrew their support. Over 36 hours, a staggering 52 senior figures in the Conservative Party resigned in protest at Johnson’s lack of integrity.

Repeatedly, he claimed — falsely — that he had a personal mandate from voters to carry out his term. Repeatedly, he refused to step down. Within the bunker of 10 Downing Street, he sacked his most senior and experienced minister, Michael Gove, for daring to tell Johnson to resign. By some calculations, there were not enough qualified people left in the ruling party to fill the now enormous hole at the top level of government.

None of this dulled Johnson’s sentimental, populist conviction that he was loved by the people, and that his ouster was a betrayal not of him, but of them.

In his essay on the Roman philosopher Seneca, T.S. Eliot lingers on the final scene of “Othello.” Shakespeare’s tragic hero, he says, is guilty of presenting a sentimentalized account of his own character; of endeavoring to escape reality — the bodies at his feet — by cheering himself up, even with his last words. “He takes in the spectator,” wrote Eliot, “but the human motive is primarily to take in himself.”

Boris Johnson at last forgot his satirical purpose. And it could be his undoing.

Now here, on a lunchtime in July, was Boris Johnson — who had once cried that he would “let the bodies pile high” rather than suffer the unpopularity of declaring another lockdown, according to one of his own ministers — delivering his own final soliloquy as prime minister from a lectern outside 10 Downing Street.

The vow about bodies was forgotten as he spoke down the camera to “you, the British public” and “my friends.” The cause of his downfall, he said, was Westminster, where “the herd instinct is powerful, and when it moves, it moves.” He spoke of the Conservative Party’s “Darwinian system.” It was not his friends the people who had failed him but “the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party.”

Then the cameras clicked, and with a wave he was gone. He had waffled and squirmed to the last, but reality had finally come for the prime minister.

Or so it seemed. Even as he retreated behind the drapes of No. 10, reports emerged that Johnson was busily appointing new ministers and had decided he would remain as prime minister until September. Not only that, by remaining in office, he would be entitled to use the official prime ministerial residence at Chequers for a vast wedding party he was now planning with his wife, Carrie, all still at taxpayer’s expense. (He has since opted to move the event.)

Boris Johnson is not Donald Trump. Far from it. Britain in July 2022 is not the United States in November 2020. We should all be grateful for that. But it would be a confident gambler indeed who would bet against Johnson — still convinced that he is the British people’s favorite leader — looking to give reality the slip one last time.

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