The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The cringe of Boris Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson departs 10 Downing Street in London on July 6. (Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News)
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This story has been updated.

For years, Boris Johnson’s superpower was his lack of shame. The British prime minister first gained mainstream attention years ago as a punching bag for comedians on a satirical, anti-establishment panel show. Later, accusations of cronyism, corruption, incompetence and infidelity fell beside his meteoric political rise like water off a duck’s back.

But while Britain’s Conservatives once delighted in his ability to weather anything his many critics threw at him, Johnson’s brazenness is now a major problem for them. Johnson may not feel any embarrassment, but his colleagues ended up affected by it vicariously. Finally forced to announce his resignation Thursday, Johnson became the first British prime minister brought down not by personal shame, but by a collective cringe.

After winning a remarkable parliamentary majority in 2019, Johnson endured scandal after scandal. There was Britain’s disastrous early pandemic response, which included the prime minister almost dying of covid-19 himself. Then there were accusations of cronyism and corruption, including dubious dealings with Russian oligarchs and a Downing Street redecoration at a wealthy donor’s expense.

“Partygate,” the catchy name given to a rolling scandal involving rule-breaking pandemic parties at Downing Street, earned him the ignoble honor of being the first British prime minister to be charged with a crime while in office. And though he became prime minister in 2019 after pledging to “get Brexit done,” his government is still mired in the details, even threatening to pull out of its own deal regarding the Northern Irish border.

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There are too many other scandals to list. The one that finally turned his own government against him, however, is a grim example of political shamelessness at work. It centers on whether the prime minister knew about the allegations against Chris Pincher, a Conservative member of Parliament who recently quit as deputy chief whip following sexual assault allegations.

Downing Street initially said the prime minister did not know of the previous allegations when he promoted Pincher. Soon, it was forced to backtrack and acknowledge that Johnson had in fact been informed. On Tuesday evening, two formerly loyal senior politicians — Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid — resigned from his government. Within 24 hours, dozens of others had followed.

A normal prime minister might have resigned, too. Johnson, for better or worse, has never abided by the norms. As James Butler wrote for the London Review of Books on Wednesday, though Johnson has lost many jobs, few of his exits have come via resignations. “His sole political resignation, as foreign secretary under Theresa May, was simply the first step in a successful campaign for her job,” Butler wrote.

On Wednesday, Johnson pointed to the historic size of his 2019 electoral win as justification for ignoring everything else. “Frankly, the job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances when you have been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going, and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said in Parliament.

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Once that might have worked. British parliamentary politics are driven by informal cycles of scandals, shame and sacrifice. Johnson had short-circuited this routine. He had the scandals but never the shame, while others were his sacrifice. Johnson survived a no-confidence vote from his own party just last month, but the scale of the votes against him led many to suggest he should resign anyway.

But if the relentless pace of scandals hadn’t worn the prime minister down, it wore down his allies. They realized they were being sullied by his reputation, rather than burnished by it. “We may not have always been popular, but we have been competent in acting in the national interest,” Javid wrote of the Conservative Party in his resignation letter. “Sadly, in the current circumstances, the public are concluding we are now neither.”

The speed and scale of resignations from Johnson’s government over the past 24 hours are unlike anything in recent British political history. As this chart from the Institute of Government shows, only the doomed post-Brexit premiership of May bears any comparison. (The number of resignations continued to climb after the chart was made.)

And public attitude has clearly swung, too. A snap poll conducted by YouGov on Wednesday found that more than two-thirds of Britons believed Johnson should resign, including majorities of Conservative voters and those who voted to leave the European Union — Johnson’s base.

The two charts above are clearly linked. Those turning on Johnson do so because he has become a liability, rather than an asset. “The message is that this party wants to have a future after Johnson,” wrote Darren Lilleker, professor of political communication at Bournemouth University, in an analysis of the many resignation letters released Tuesday and Wednesday.

Johnson initially seemed happy to go down with the ship. The prime minister even hinted Wednesday that he could force an early general election, rather than allowing an internal leadership contest within the Conservative Party (under current rules, an election must take place before May 2, 2024). It would be an act of ritual suicide, given recent polling. Johnson, who began his premiership with a historic electoral victory, was flirting with ending it via a historic electoral defeat.

The prime minister who never seemed to take the job seriously was now in a battle to hold onto it. He was battling his former supporters, who would rather he resign so an internal leadership contest can take place without an election. It was only after the number of resignations swelled further on Thursday to over 50 that Johnson finally agreed to go.

As Johnson leaves, the country he leads is suffering through a crisis of its own. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently estimated that Britain would have the worst economic growth of any G-20 country outside Russia next year. Inflation is expected to hit 11 percent year-on-year this autumn, higher than any other G-7 nation.

And while there is no shortage of global factors, economists say that Johnson’s signature policy — Brexit — will come to be seen as a key culprit for these lost years of stagnation and decline. This era of audacity and rule-breaking in British politics could possibly be about to end. Its repercussions will outlast it by a long way.

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