The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Britain’s brush with democratic collapse isn’t comparable to ours

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces his resignation outside 10 Downing Street on July 7. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

It could have been far worse.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Thursday morning that he would resign as leader of the Conservative Party concluded days of extraordinary resistance to the idea that he should sacrifice his position. Johnson’s decision was due to an accretion of countless scandals and questions but was most immediately triggered by his office’s belated admission that he’d been informed about accusations of groping against an ally before offering that person, Chris Pincher, a senior position in the party. And so, once the Conservatives have chosen a new leader, Johnson has pledged to step down as leader of the U.K. government.

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A day or two ago, it wasn’t clear this succession would be so orderly.

“Theoretically, he can hang on almost indefinitely, until he loses half of his party,” Rory Stewart, a former Conservative member of Parliament, explained in an interview on CNN earlier this week. “It’s not like the American system. There isn’t an impeachment process that can be followed in this way.” Stewart worried that Johnson would “try to cling on like a cartoon banana-republic dictator.”

When Stewart says “losing half of his party,” he’s referring to a process that Johnson narrowly survived a month ago. Then, members of the Conservative Party in Parliament held a vote of no confidence in his leadership, with Johnson surpassing the 180 votes needed to retain his position. Established rules hold that prime ministers can’t face two such votes in a year, meaning that even as the Pincher scandal emerged, Johnson was immune from ouster. (A party committee had planned to consider whether to change that grace period next week but ultimately decided against it, apparently in part because Johnson’s resignation was expected.) Even as top officials in his government began resigning by the dozens, there was no mechanism in place for anyone but Johnson to remove himself from his position. (Though Queen Elizabeth II technically retains the power to fire the prime minister, no British monarch in the modern era has removed one from power.)

To British observers, this was scandalous, a threat to the nation’s expectations and political norms. In a report for the BBC, editor Lewis Goodall marveled that Johnson and his team might hang on despite the fact that both “the ministerial code and the civil service code … have embedded within them that the prime minister and his spokespeople have to tell the truth.” Yet still he seemed poised to retain power!

For American observers, there was a familiar aspect to all of this. Boris Johnson has long been compared to Donald Trump, from his tonsorial eccentricity to his overheated opposition to past expectations. To see Johnson then press against the constraints of his power after it was obvious to nearly everyone else that he’d lost his legitimacy? Yeah, seemed about right.

The scenarios are obviously incommensurate in important ways. Johnson’s power is far more a function of handshake expectations than rigorous boundaries. It was not the case that he’d lost an election and was hanging on, as was the case with Trump. The reality is that Johnson had far more grounds to try to retain power than did Trump in the wake of the 2020 election.

What’s critical, though, is the difference in what happened as that pressure was applied.

Questions about Johnson have festered for months, leading to that no-confidence vote in early June. At that point, 148 Conservatives voted against Johnson — a remarkable rebuke from his own party and one that Trump never faced. Trump was impeached for having demonstrably tried to leverage governmental power to aid his reelection bid — and just one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), voted to impeach or convict. Trump was impeached a second time for his obvious contributions to the violence that unfolded during the Capitol riot, and fewer than 20 House and Senate Republicans joined that condemnation.

Only after the Capitol riot, when Trump’s imminent departure from the presidency was firmly cemented in the public understanding, did a number of officials from his administration announce their resignations. For some, the day’s violence was the obvious trigger. But everything that contributed to that violence — the dishonesty about election fraud, the amplification of calls to show up in D.C. — were clear for weeks prior, as was Trump’s broader effort to subvert the election results. Attorney General William P. Barr was one of only a few senior staffers to resign before all of this unfolded. When he did so, he offered up a public letter of sweeping praise for the president he’d served.

Trump enjoys something Johnson didn’t: a fervent cult of personality that’s intertwined with party. Johnson’s approval among Conservatives was about evenly split at the end of June, according to YouGov polling, with about half saying he was doing poorly as prime minister. Even as Trump endured far more crises and scandals, his Republican base stayed loyal to him, demanding at least implicitly that other Republican officials and politicians do the same.

It was that pattern that was so important to Trump’s effort to retain power. He’d spent five-plus years reinforcing a system in which millions of Americans were primarily loyal to him and saw him, not the party or the government, as the thing to be protected. Then, as his power was threatened, he mobilized that system to his benefit. In part because the naming of a prime minister doesn’t involve a similarly direct election of an individual, Johnson didn’t have that same system in place.

None of this should be seen as particularly comforting to our friends in Britain, however. The indignant response to Johnson’s stubbornness was littered with warning signs we might have observed in 2016 or 2017. A member of the media marveling at how often an elected leader makes dishonest claims (as that BBC commentator did) would earn belly laughs in post-Trump America; to the BBC, it’s still a novelty. That the response to that dishonesty was to point to honor-system rule books bounding behavior is similarly something that Americans have given up relying upon in the past five years. We thought we had effective norms in place, too.

Unless he changes his mind, Johnson will be prime minister for some time — perhaps a month or two — until a new party leader is named. His resignation feels at this point less like Trump’s ouster than former New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s announcement last year: scheduled — but also angry and petulant. Seen by both as a brief detour from power, however accurately. To that point, though, both Johnson’s and Cuomo’s resignations were also a function of former allies unworried about repercussions.

The U.K.’s crisis was less stark than our own. But Britain should take this moment as a point of warning. Honesty and honor are insufficient fences for power.

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