As ethical failings piled up, Boris Johnson, who studied the classics at Balliol College at Oxford University, embraced the Iliad’s moral code. “He thinks in classic terms,” said an MP in the London Time. “For him, there is no greater honor in resigning than to be killed… if you are going to die, go down fighting.
It was long enough. Ultimately, Johnson’s ending owes more to Homer Simpson than to Homer, the ancient Greek author. He did not fight but was dragged into denial. There was no honor in his disappearance; he was actually shot by his own troops in his own bunker.
As has so often been the case with Johnson, it was a potent combination of sex, booze and lies that brought him to the brink. Last week, Conservative Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher resigned after admitting “[drinking] way too much” in a private club and “embarrass[ing himself] and other people. It was alleged that he groped two men. This wasn’t the first time Pincher had been accused of sexual misconduct. Johnson insisted for several days that he was unaware of Pincher’s past, although it emerged that he had dubbed him “Pincher by name, pincher by nature.” When a retired civil servant released a public letter on July 5 saying he had personally informed Johnson of Pincher’s behavior a few years earlier, the dam broke. After Partygate, two dramatic special election defeats and the resignation of its ethics counsellor, it was one lie too many. Two senior ministers – the chancellor and the health secretary – have resigned, citing a lack of integrity and competence. Massive desertion followed. Sixteen ministers marched on the same day. One of the waning group of Johnson loyalists was cut off on the radio three times by news of new resignations even as he pleaded for Johnson to stay.
The recent outrage over Johnson’s behavior should be understood as a matter of policy rather than principle. His disregard for the truth, his narcissistic behavior and his utter disregard for convention were not just new: they were his calling cards. “When people show you who they are for the first time,” said Maya Angelou, “believe them. Johnson had shown us again and again and again. It was only when he became a clear political and electoral liability that such blatant misconduct became a problem for his fellow Tories.
Johnson then phoned those who had not resigned, one by one, as Thatcher had done, believing they would be less likely to turn him down individually than as a group. These are the people who were closest to him, both politically and personally. And as was the case with Thatcher, even individually, most of them told him he should go. Yet he refused to budge.
When he called the deputies to offer them the posts left vacant by those who had just resigned, they did not accept. No sane rat joins a sinking ship. Ministers he had only appointed the day before have resigned. A minister, who had Covid and could not keep up with events, actually resigned after Johnson himself announced his resignation. But like a cartoon character who can keep running off a cliff as long as he doesn’t look down, Johnson’s stubbornness was time-limited. By the time he finally quit, he hadn’t run out of road but had finally come up against reality.
Earlier in the day of the resignations, Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, had tried to draw a line under Brexit. The UK “will not return to the EU” under a Labor government, he said, saying that if elected his job would be to “make Brexit work”.
Yet with Johnson gone, we are witnessing the erosion of the legacy of Brexit in British political culture. Its diplomatic and economic ramifications continue to make deep and lasting impressions. Six years after the referendum victory he fought for, Johnson’s resignation represents the beginning of the end of his impact on domestic politics.
Johnson’s political rise was the product of the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. At the time, most Conservative MPs wanted to stay in the EU. David Cameron resigned as MP after the vote to leave the country. His successor, Theresa May, who also backed the retainer, maintained a balance of stayers and leavers in her cabinet. May was forced to resign after failing to muster a majority in the House of Commons for her Brexit plan. The party – and therefore the country – was left to the rump that had backed the start, with Johnson at its helm. It was mainly, but not exclusively, due to his pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ that he won such an overwhelming majority over Jeremy Corbyn and Labor in 2019.
Now that Brexit is not merely ‘done’, but is accepted as a fact of political life by a sufficient number of politicians, it will, in time, cease to be a determining factor in British politics. . The 2019 election delivered a decisive – but not ideological – electoral victory and any political progress conservatives might have made was cut short by the pandemic. Since then, necessity has forced a huge increase in public spending, tax hikes and a much bigger windfall tax on energy companies than Labor had dared to propose. It has a huge majority but no coherent agenda.
Without any good reason for the Brexit wing of the Conservative Party – which had neither the most experienced nor the most capable parliamentarians – to continue to dominate, and without Johnson’s imposing personality looming in the same way, we will probably see a major reshuffle within the party.
What happens next is uncertain. The situation is volatile and fluid. Inflation is high, growth is at a standstill and we have a summer of strikes ahead of us. Labor is calling for a general election, but with Johnson gone and the public still disliking Starmer, there’s no reason to believe Labor would win an election in the highly unlikely event that an election would be convened this year. Instead, in the coming months, the most significant opposition will come mainly from outside parliament.
As of this writing, the question of exactly when Johnson will leave remains open. He initially said he wanted to stay until a new party leader could be chosen in the fall, which allowed Cameron and May to leave. But they left with a certain dignity; Johnson leaves with her nails in the spotlight.
Johnson’s resignation statement was typically graceless. Blaming ‘herd instinct’ at Westminster, he said changing leaders at this stage was ‘eccentric’ but ‘when the herd moves, it moves’. The Tories’ immediate response to his request was incredibly frosty, suggesting that the trauma he inflicted by overstaying his welcome will not be forgiven anytime soon.
Who could replace Johnson is also an open question. The Conservative Party has lost its center of gravity. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is often touted, and former Defense Secretary Penny Mourdant and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak (whose resignation earlier this week sparked the latest stage of this crisis) have both been mentioned . But Johnson was such an outsized personality that few in his cabinet have many personal supporters within the party; most could not be chosen from programming by the general public.
What is certain is that Johnson’s successor will be a Conservative, whose government will continue to favor the rich and target the poor. “Kings were put to death long before January 21, 1793,” wrote Albert Camus, referring to the execution of Louis XVI after the French Revolution. “But the regicides of old and their supporters were interested in attacking the person, and not the principle, of the king. They wanted another king, and that was it. The change in personnel at Downing Street is welcome, but it is a change in policy that we need.