The end of the British prime minister’s brief term in office – one of the shortest in a century – was, the New York Times said, ‘just as chaotic, messy and jaw-dropping as every other chapter of Boris Johnson’s political career’.
The Conservative Party leader, who had been jet-setting from CHOGM in Rwanda, as the outgoing chair-in-office of the Commonwealth, to the G7 summit in Bavaria and Nato’s conference in Madrid, was only a week later holed up in 10 Downing Street desperately trying to prop up his government as his once-solid support melted away.
The catalyst was when the party’s deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher, was reported to have sexually assaulted two men while drunk at a private club favoured by Tories, followed by the revelation that Johnson had lied about not knowing about the MP’s reputation when he appointed him to the post. Over a sometimes farcical two days, starting with the health secretary, Sajid Javid, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, a record 58 ministers, parliamentary private secretaries and other government or party office-holders resigned, while others supposedly loyal to Johnson, including the man he had just appointed to replace Sunak at the Treasury, Nadhim Zahawi, urged him to stand down. Michelle Donelan, promoted to education secretary only two days previously, was among those to quit. Speaking at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, the opposition leader, Labour’s Keir Starmer, called it ‘the sinking ship fleeing the rat’.
As news programmes struggled to keep up with the roll-call of politicians abandoning their posts, social-media memes mocked the Downing Street bunker mentality, such as one from the film Downfall, about Hitler’s last days. The PM’s office ignored journalists’ calls until suddenly the BBC relayed a call from No 10 to announce live on air that Johnson had agreed to resign.
It was an ignominious end for a politician who won a sweeping victory for the Tories in 2019, buoyed by his success in getting Brexit completed and winning seats for the Tories in Labour heartlands. Johnson had brushed off being caught lying, and becoming the first PM to break the law in office (by allowing and attending parties at No 10 – ‘Partygate’ – while the rest of the country was in lockdown and unable to even visit dying relatives in hospital). He had survived dozens of scandals and gaffes, plus two ethics advisers’ resignations. But now the politicians who had hailed his election-winning populism, many of whom rode into power on his coat-tails, had turned on him.
Though many voters expressed sympathy for a PM ‘stabbed in the back’, the party is always quick to defenestrate a leader if its grip on power is threatened, as a disbelieving Margaret Thatcher found to her dismay when she was unceremoniously dumped in 1990 despite leading the Tories to three consecutive election victories. This approach has kept the Conservatives in government for all but 18 years over the last century and made them arguably the world’s most successful political party. As the New Republic put it, ‘one secret of its success [is] the party’s ability to disassociate itself from the consequences of its own actions. Rarely has a political party wielded so much power, for so long, with so little accountability.’
There were few former supporters who still had a good word for him. One was Justin Tomlinson, deputy party chairman, who said: ‘He was our star player, who connected across traditional political divides.’ More representative were the words of an anonymous senior Conservative MP, who called Johnson ‘a man destroyed by his own fundamental flaws’. Andrew Bridgen, another Tory MP, took issue with his valedictory speech, saying: ‘There was no apology for the crisis his actions have put our government, our democracy, through.’
Opponents were scathing. Starmer said: ‘It should have happened long ago. He was always unfit for office. He has been responsible for lies, scandal and fraud on an industrial scale.’ Lee Jasper, a Labour politician, expressed amazement at how long he had remained PM, telling the Voice: ‘I know him to be deeply unethical; a pathological liar, a serial cheater, corrupt, and on top of all that has a propensity for incompetence.’
Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Féin, which had fiercely opposed Johnson’s efforts to unpick the Northern Ireland Protocol, called him ‘a figure of absolute disrepute. Anyone who tries to sabotage our peace agreements, a quarter century of progress and our shared future, is truly no friend of ours.’
Michel Barnier, the former EU negotiator over Brexit, tweeted: ‘The departure of Boris Johnson opens a new page in relations with Britain. May it be more constructive, more respectful of commitments made, in particular regarding peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and more friendly with partners in the EU. Because there’s so much more to be done together.’
Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s former Brexit coordinator, said: ‘EU-UK relations suffered hugely with Johnson’s choice of Brexit,’ adding that his term was ending in ‘disgrace, just like his friend Donald Trump’.
Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, the Australian broadcaster ABC said Johnson was ‘the architect of his own demise’. Quoting a teacher at Eton, the school that has so far educated 20 of the UK’s 55 prime ministers, the writer traced Johnson’s hubris to his earliest days: ‘I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception,’ the teacher told Johnson’s father, ‘one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.’
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board