The English poet Andrew Marvell wrote famous lines on King Charles I’s 1649 execution: “He nothing common did or mean/upon that memorable scene.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, often recited those lines to his staff, or even to himself. The great wartime prime minister was determined that when the history of World War II was written, he should be deemed to have spoken and acted likewise, in a fashion worthy of the grandeur and tragedy of the hour, as of course he did.
Johnson, who announced his resignation on Thursday, by contrast has done little during his three-year premiership, and nothing over the past week, that has not been common, mean or both.
The cynicism of his own Conservative Party was awesome when, in 2019, its members of Parliament anointed him as their leader. They knew him to be a serial liar and adulterer, previously expelled from the leadership; notoriously lazy and chaotic. They calculated, however, that he was a vote-winner among people who were not traditional Tories but embraced him as a lovable clown who would make politics fun.
Some of us said at the time that government is not meant to be fun. Few familiar with Johnson’s habits and record — he worked for me for seven years when I was a newspaper editor — thought him remotely qualified for public life. Though a brilliant journalistic entertainer, he is a narcissist of heroic proportions.
A decade ago, when Johnson was mayor of London, I wrote that he had never seemed to care for any human being save himself. If ever he achieved his ambition to become prime minister, for many of us a new life in, say, Argentina would suddenly seem inviting.
That remark caused Johnson’s father, Stanley, a figure cut from the same checkered cloth as Boris, to taunt me at a wedding a few years back: “Why aren’t you in Buenos Aires?” I responded that thanks to his son’s policies, I would have trouble affording the airfare.
Three years ago, we doomsayers were brushed aside, and Johnson delivered a massive election victory for the Tories against an extremist Labour Party leader — ahead of progressive disillusionment as the public wearied of the prime minister’s squalid personal conduct, broken political promises and contemptuous deceits.
Though Johnson adores what the great 1960s US administration figure George Ball once called “the satisfactions of power,” he has governed with embarrassing incoherence. He defies rules, conventions and even law according to whim. Last week, when it became plain that his untruths had finally forfeited the confidence of the best of his ministers, his party and the country, he was granted an opportunity to resign with dignity and grace.
He declined to accept this. Instead, again he borrowed from the playbook of former US President Donald Trump, asserting that he was being deprived of his rightful office by a cabal of party members who have defied the electoral will of the British people. He seems sincerely to delude himself that he still commands the affection of the nation, rather than of a small and ever-diminishing fragment of it.
He offers apologies for nothing, and will obviously spend the years ahead writing memoirs, making speeches and perhaps attempting to wield a wrecking ball against his successor’s government. He will seek to show that he, the people’s choice, was deposed by mean-spirited rivals envious of his popularity, celebrity, brilliance.
Only a minority of British people will buy this line — much smaller than the proportion of Americans who swallow Trump’s claim to have been defrauded of the US presidency. Britain’s travails, and Johnson’s appalling behavior, matter much less than does the struggle for legitimacy in Washington, because ours is not remotely such an important country.
But both highlight the same crisis of democracy, the eclipse of traditionally experienced, qualified and on the whole honorable politicians by carpetbaggers willing to say anything to get themselves elected and ultimately indifferent to any cause save their personal advancement.
Johnson’s premiership has been a long, sometimes apparently interminable, embarrassment. The vacuous rhetoric, abuse of foreigners, flagrant breaches of Covid laws made by himself, illegal partying and institutionalized lying progressively alienated all but the most devoted of his supporters.
Britain is not a very corrupt country by global standards, but Johnson has made it more so by his favoritism toward cronies — conferring state honors on fat cats whose only credentials are that they entertain the prime minister and his family.
Johnson loyalists, like Trump supporters, cling to a gut liking for the guy. They believe he is somehow on their side — a fallacy because Boris has never been on anybody’s side save his own. He seems fun, when conventional politics and government are grey and boring. Jeremy Hunt, the Tory whom he defeated to secure the leadership in 2019, is an intelligent, decent former head boy of his school with long ministerial experience, especially in the vital health sector.
Yet Hunt is also a dull dog, bereft of the stardust that fortune has sprinkled upon his rival. Some months ago, I had a conversation with a woman who is best friend of one of Johnson’s ex-lovers. I said: “I suppose she hates him now.” “Oh no,” responded my acquaintance. “She still thinks Boris is absolutely terrific.”
I retired confounded, obliged reluctantly to acknowledge that almost none of the women in Boris’s past has a bad word to say about him, except his ex-wives, whom he would probably say do not count.
Some of the above is sort of funny, like the Trump presidency, except that it is not. Politics and government are not meant to be music hall turns. It seems fair to suggest that something has gone badly wrong with democracy when such people ascend the highest slopes of power, as they do in a frightening number of countries. I forget who dubbed Johnson “Borisconi,” recalling the disastrous and shameless former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but the nickname is appropriate.
Today, there is widespread disgust in Britain that the Tory party seems willing to indulge Johnson’s continuance in office as caretaker prime minister until completion of the election process to choose a replacement, which will certainly take weeks, possibly months.
The two powerful objections to his stewardship are, first, that it spares him from the ignominy of being precipitated onto the Downing Street sidewalk where he belongs. The second is that, being a much more vengeful man than is widely understood, he is likely to use residual control of the levers of power to influence the choice of his successor.
In particular, he will do all that he can to secure the defeat of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, whose resignation last week Johnson regards as having triggered his downfall. Sunak, formerly a successful businessman, is far the best qualified of the candidates to become prime minister.
He launched his leadership campaign on Friday with an honorable and admirable pitch for the restoration of honesty in government. Sunak insists that when the nation faces hard times — Britain is forecast to be the worst-performing of the Group of Seven economies next year, with inflation rampant — there cannot be both public spending increases and tax cuts, as Johnson and the Tory right have been baying for.
The discredited prime minister once cheerfully described himself as a “cakeist,” who believes that everybody should be able to have their cake and eat it too. This view appears to be at the heart of his political creed, also of his life, but does not find much favor with economists.
Yet such is the siren appeal of a tax-cutting agenda among the dominant Conservative right that I fear the winner of the leadership contest is likely to prove to be a committed money-giveawayer. Moreover, under the flawed leadership contest rules, when Tories in parliament have narrowed the field to two contenders, those names are then passed to just 200,000 Conservative Party members around the country for the final decision.
The wider British nation, in other words, gets no say about our next prime minister until the next general election, not necessary until 2024. I am a cynic about Tory rank-and-filers: If Sunak is one of two candidates, and the other is white, I believe that he will lose. There is still more racism than we care to admit in some regions of Britain, just as there is in the US.
I told my wife yesterday that my other great fear is that the new prime minister will persist with Johnson’s disastrous policies, or rather lack of policies. She responded, “Can’t we just be satisfied for now with the fact that he is going? Just rejoice!” This last line echoed a remark of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after a victory in the 1982 Falklands War.
Yet doubts about the quality of most of the front-runners for the leadership succession go far to explain why Johnson was not deposed months ago. They are lightweights. He chose his cabinet not on the basis of ability but of loyalty — some outstanding Tory MPs, including Jeremy Hunt and Tom Tugendhat, were excluded, while Foreign Secretary Liz Truss could never have aspired to a top cabinet job under any other leader save Johnson.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is deemed to have “had a good war” by providing maximum British arms support for Ukraine, when many European nations have hung back. Both he and Truss, like Johnson, have indulged in bellicose rhetoric about the need for Ukrainians to keep fighting until the last Russian is expelled from their soil. All three espouse the prospect of the West securing a “generational victory” over the Russians, which some of us think wholly unattainable. There was widespread surprise in London on Saturday, when Wallace ruled himself out of the leadership contest, because more than a few people — including me — thought he might have won it.
No Tory is likely to gain power who admits a harsh truth economists almost unanimously accept, that Brexit has wiped around 5% off our GDP, an act of massive self-harm, even before the further damage inflicted on every nation by Covid-19 and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
A wise British prime minister would abandon the institutionalized abuse of Europeans that has been a feature of the Johnson years, and seek to mend fences. Instead, the Tory right is likely to insist that fighting Europe, denouncing the Brussels bureaucracy of the EU, is an indispensable test of Brexit purity.
Worst of all, to please Ulster’s Protestant Unionists, the new prime minister may insist on continuing Johnson’s policy of unilaterally renouncing the Northern Ireland Protocol of the EU departure treaty, which his own government signed. Truss has been steering the parliamentary bill to implement this almost certainly illegal measure, which has provoked fury in Washington.
Most British people today want what most Americans wanted when President Joe Biden was elected: a return to calm, responsible, serious government wherein wise advice is sought and taken, discipline and order are acknowledged as essential elements of the management of public affairs. Unfortunately, just as in the US, in Britain there is a powerful, implacable right-wing minority that places ideology above pragmatism, party interest above that of the country.
Many of us believe that only the expulsion of the Conservatives from power can secure a revival of decent values and competent administration. Unfortunately, the Labour Party under Keir Starmer is as beset as US Democrats by sterile woke controversies and vacuous left-wing obsessions.
Race and gender issues matter greatly, but no successful ruling party in any society can allow these to dominate its agenda. Labour ought to be a shoo-in to win the next British election, but unless the lackluster Starmer can display mastery and grip — show himself a more formidable personality than he has contrived thus far — Labour will to struggle to secure national power, despite a hefty current lead in the opinion polls.
If much of the above suggests dismay, if not despair, about the condition of Britain’s body politic, my wife is assuredly right that the simple fact of Johnson’s resigning should allow Britons what Churchill in May 1945 called “a brief period of rejoicing.” Had he been able to survive in office until 2024, a message would have gone forth for future aspirants to Britain’s leadership that the bar for morality, ethics and decency in our democracy had sunk to a level unseen since some moments of the 18th century.
We have not, alas, heard the last of Boris Johnson. After quitting office, he will earn millions from his memoirs and public appearances, even as the rest of us pay the colossal bills for his mismanagement of Britain. We must hope fervently that the country falls into the hands of a serious leader, which means Sunak or Hunt.
The UK, the US and other democracies around the globe share a desperate need for a new generation of honest and responsible politicians, to give our children and grandchildren the quality of government they deserve. But we are in peril of being denied this by the likes of Trump, Johnson and their would-be clones.