Boris Johnson’s Nine Lives Are Up
The British prime minister’s lockdown hypocrisy is tanking his premiership.
By Nick Cohen
The fall of Boris Johnson is an antidote to the despairing notion that modern electorates are so split into warring camps there is no common ground left. Not everyone, it turns out, is so gripped by groupthink they will let their tribe’s leader get away with any behavior, however egregious. The UK’s prime minister is now a lame-duck leader, his orders ignored, his reputation in tatters, waiting for the moment when his colleagues or the electorate eject him.
The most unexpected of uprisings in this partisan age has destroyed him: an outbreak of genuinely national anger. Johnson, his wife, aides and civil servants had thrown parties in the official prime ministerial residence in London’s Downing Street, while forcing the rest of the country to obey their ferocious Covid restrictions on the threat of criminal punishment. These were not modest affairs where guests nursed a glass of wine through the evening, but raucous nights where the music blared and junior staffers staggered out to Westminster supermarkets to fill suitcases with more booze.
The resulting scorn has broken the dividing lines between left and right, populists and centrists. Writing in 1940 of a world I thought we had lost, George Orwell said that the English may be a family “with the wrong members in control,” but were still a family, which “at the approach of an enemy closes its ranks.” The massed ranks of the nation have indeed closed... against its prime minister who partied while millions suffered and over 150,000 died.
One poll for the YouGov opinion research company showed 63% of those questioned thought Johnson should resign, and 70% thought he wasn’t telling the truth about the partying in Downing Street. A different poll for the Channel 4 television station of 45 largely white working class seats in the English Midlands and North—areas that voted Conservative in the December 2019 general election, often for the first time—showed nearly all were returning to the opposition Labour party.
Donald Trump, with whom the UK’s prime minister is often compared, may have been overestimating the credulity of Republicans when he said that he could stand on New York’s Fifth Avenue “and shoot somebody,” and still not lose votes. But you can see why he believed it. The events of the past month have shown that the same cannot be said of Boris Johnson.
Until now, Johnson’s life had taught him he could get away with anything. He benefited from an education at Eton College and Oxford University, elite institutions that place a high premium on the ability to charm and manipulate others, the better to advance through school and university societies.
As his subsequent career illustrated, the best way he found to convince others that he was on their side was to lie to them. After Oxford, he joined the London Times in 1987. Its editor fired the 23-year-old for making up quotes from a historian. Johnson then moved to become Brussels correspondent of the right-wing Daily Telegraph. He manufactured fake news before the term was coined, spinning tales of European Union bureaucrats regulating the bendiness of bananas and the size of condoms. Johnson told his readers what they wanted to hear—the mark of a journalistic coward, but also an essential explanation for his popularity.
As one of Britain’s few celebrity politicians, Johnson’s decision to support Brexit helped secure the narrow vote to leave the EU in 2016. He has thrived on chaos ever since. The constitutional crisis Brexit brought made him leader of the Conservative party and thus prime minister in the summer of 2019, and the promise to end the mess he had made by “getting Brexit done” secured him a handsome victory in the December 2019 general election.
The signature lies were always present. Johnson’s Vote Leave campaign won the 2016 referendum in part by pretending that Turkey was about to join the EU and flood the UK with migrants. He got Brexit “done” by putting a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and then pretending he had done no such thing.
Throughout his career, he played a stereotypically English figure: the Falstaff, the laughing cavalier, the amiable aristo, on the side of the common people against the woke puritans who told them what to think and how to live. He established himself on game shows as much as political platforms with an optimistic persona, corny and self-deprecating but always fun. He exploited the UK’s archaic deference for the classical education Britain’s leaders enjoyed in the 19th century when it was a great empire, dropping Latin tags into conversation along with the invariably boosterish upper-class slang of the last century to convince voters he had the pedigree to be a successor to the statesmen of the past. Millions thought of him as a friend and called him “Boris.”
The UK is not the US, and one should be wary of generalizations that ignore the differences between distinct cultures. But if you think the most important division in the world is between believers in liberal democracy and strongmen who will smash restraints on their power, then Johnson was a member of “Team Gangster,” as a dissident Conservative politician put it to me. Any institution that might limit his scope of action—the judiciary, the election regulators, the civil service, the BBC—faced incessant threats. The attack on checks and balances was not as severe as Trump’s attack on US democracy. But the similarities were more striking than the differences.
He was helped by the weakness of the opposition. The Labour party would have found him hard to counter in any circumstances, but by the 2019 general election it had committed political suicide by running with a far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who drove away millions of voters. Labour duly sustained its worst result since 1935. Johnson, meanwhile, overwhelmed his opponents by governing from the left on economic questions while fighting the culture war from the right: he promised to “level up” economically deprived areas of the UK, and denounced all who would rewrite “our national story.”
Corbyn’s replacement after the election, the decent but dull Keir Starmer, seemed to have no way to undermine Johnson’s popularity and no strategy to reverse the rightwards shift of older, white voters. Like so many center-left parties, Labour piled huge but electorally inefficient majorities in the big cities with their ethnic minority and graduate populations. Meanwhile white working-class voters joined the traditional supporters of conservatism to engulf the left. As late as the autumn of 2021, many Labour politicians feared Johnson could look forward to a decade in power.
In both the referendum and general election, Johnson, like right-wing politicians everywhere, presented himself as fighting for “the people” against the liberal elite. Coming from an Eton- and Oxford-educated child of privilege, who led a party funded by hedge fund billionaires and Russian oligarchs, this pose drove his enemies wild. But there was just enough truth in it to make it plausible. Supporters of Britain’s EU membership did want to overturn the referendum result. In Britain, as in the US, the people most likely to censor you or demand your employer fires you are “liberals,” rather than Conservatives.
Now the populist tiger Johnson rode is savaging him. For nothing screams “elitist” as loudly as a politician who says there is one law for him and another for everyone else, and who parties while telling the voters they must let their sick parents die alone. The overwhelming majority of British people, whether they voted Conservative or not, obeyed lockdown restrictions out of respect for the law and for the publicly funded National Health Service. They will not forget or forgive a prime minister who treated them with such contempt.
Johnson’s fall shows how unstable our apparently fixed categories have become. It turns out that voters in the UK are not locked in silos or trapped in bubbles. Conservatives will not defend their side whatever it does. They are capable of turning on their leaders when they treat them as fools.
Nick Cohen is a columnist for The Guardian and The Observer in London.