Boris Johnson's Downfall
Wracked by crises, the UK Prime Minister’s life rafts have finally punctured.
by Luke Hallam
Witnessing British politics first-hand over the past six years has felt like riding the proverbial roller coaster. Ominous periods of calm were followed by short frenzied bursts of crisis, with the resolution to each crisis soon laying the groundwork for the next.
The latest crisis has culminated in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to resign. In February, Johnson appointed Chris Pincher, a member of parliament previously accused of sexual misconduct, to a leadership role in the parliamentary Conservative Party. This week, after fresh reports of drunken misconduct, it was revealed that Johnson had known about the earlier allegations against Pincher, but appointed him anyway—and that his office had lied about this knowledge to the public. After over fifty members of his government resigned in protest—an all-time record—Johnson’s fate was sealed.
That Johnson has lasted this long might seem baffling. For months he was rocked by revelations that he breached Covid-19 lockdown rules by attending raucous parties at a time when the country was banned from visiting dying relatives, then denied knowledge of such parties to Parliament. Before that, he was accused of leveraging his earlier office as London mayor to grant special favors to a businesswoman with whom he was having an affair. There have also been a slew of damning revelations about his Conservative MPs in the past year. No prime minister, it might be thought, could survive such a litany.
And yet in many ways his survival was unsurprising. Until now, he had successfully exploited two life rafts: a presidential style of governing at odds with the traditional role of prime minister; and an ideological platform that leaned to the right on culture and to the left on economics. Together, these buoyed his premiership early on and kept him afloat through months of crisis, when a prime minister more in line with tradition might have resigned. Only when both of these life rafts failed him—as they have in recent weeks—did his resignation become inevitable.
First, there was his transformative style of governing. Johnson has long been one of the most colorful figures in British politics. From vituperative columnist railing against the EU, to affable London mayor, his personal brand was a key factor in his success. Ordinary people and pundits alike referred to him affectionately as “Boris.” After becoming prime minister in July 2019, Johnson cultivated an image as a friend of the British public. He wanted televised briefings in the style of the U.S. president, a chance for the prime minister to grace the nation’s television screens on a regular basis.
But where he was truly radical was his attitude toward precedent: an important pillar of the UK’s uncodified constitution. The traditional understanding of British elections is that the public picks the party, not the prime minister, that they want to govern. The government is accountable to Parliament, and the leaders of political parties are accountable to the members and politicians in their parties, who can remove them from the leadership. General elections can be called by the prime minister outside of the normal cycle—but not for the sole purpose of saving a single scandal-ridden prime minister from a revolt in his own ranks.
Johnson disregarded all of this. One of his first acts was to illegally force parliament to stop sitting (an act called prorogation), hoping to bypass the legislature and honor his campaign pledges to deliver a full divorce from the EU.
And at the end he seemed to threaten to return to the people by calling another election, against the pleas of some of his closest allies who knew that there was no legitimate reason for him to do so. A day before his resignation, he blustered and flailed when asked by a parliamentary committee if he would consider calling an election. It was clearly on his mind.
Ultimately, the parliamentary system asserted itself and the presidential prime minister conceded defeat. The precedent that a mandate is given to a party, not a prime minister, won out. No election was called. Allies who had steadfastly defended the indefensible were faced with the reality Johnson’s winning charm had run out, and turned on him. The first life raft was punctured.
The other reason Johnson survived so long was his adroit ideological positioning. On culture, he postured to the right, most notably on the Brexit issue. He was quick to condemn the defacement of statues, including those of Winston Churchill. These cultural positions were combined with a leftward economic turn encapsulated in his “levelling up” agenda: a promise to help Britain’s deprived regions—especially in the north east, where Johnson’s party made large inroads in constituencies which had voted Labour for decades—to match the economic affluence of the richer south. Plans for tax cuts and greater investment in ambitious infrastructure projects dominated the headlines.
None of this represented the hardline approach some of Johnson’s opponents claimed it was. When he won a convincing election victory in 2019, it was on the back of a broad coalition spanning from the traditional right to the moderate left. Some of these voters may have thought that Johnson was a bit of a buffoon, and even worried about how he broke with some long-standing political traditions, but they never thought he was the Trump-like demagogue his opponents tried to depict. He did not urge the crowds to descend upon parliament during the Brexit crisis of 2019. He grudgingly accepted the outcome when the British supreme court ruled that the move to prorogue parliament was illegal. Few people thought that the oft-cited racial slurs that occasionally featured in his newspaper columns were anything like the kind of virulent ethno-nationalism that animates the MAGA movement. Rather than “Britain’s Trump,” it’s more accurate to describe Johnson as an opportunist who saw which way the winds were blowing, and successfully appealed to a large and diverse constituency.
And yet, in the end, his promises fell short. When scandal hit, the moderates—especially in traditional Conservative southern heartlands—soured on a man whose lies and incompetence were so distasteful. Meanwhile, the “levelling up” agenda never got off the ground. Plans like relocating government bureaucrats to the north of England felt more like empty symbolism—how would that help most working people?—than meaningful change, and most of the concrete investment has yet to materialize. It was hard to convince people that leveling up was a reality during a cost of living crisis and the economic turbulence caused by Brexit, Ukraine, and Covid. Combined with opposition leader Keir Starmer’s successful shift to the middle ground, the stage was set for a collapse in Conservative support, as captured by recent polls.
When the ideological sweet-spot Johnson carved out failed to save his premiership, Conservative MPs concluded that their erstwhile golden boy had become a liability. The second life raft was punctured—and Johnson’s colleagues threw him overboard.
Luke Hallam is an associate editor at Persuasion.