Those who have closely followed the picaresque soap opera of Boris Johnson’s career to its ignominious end this week may remember an episode, much puffed by the press, which occurred in 2019. It concerned an argument between Johnson and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Carrie Symonds, overheard through the walls (and recorded) by a hostile neighbour. Johnson had just discharged a quantity of red wine over his beloved’s sofa, and was being screamed at. “You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt!” she exploded. “You have no care for money or anything!”
Many—on this rare occasion—would have sympathised with Symonds’s feelings. Indeed, the notorious lockdown party, or parties, at Number 10 that kickstarted Johnson’s spiralling demise were arguably just another of his wine-stains, though on a much larger scale. The ruined sofa this time around was the electoral future of his party, and there was little evidence that he cared about that much more.
Nor has Symonds been the only one to skewer our departing Prime Minister in these terms. “Disgracefully cavalier” (his teacher at Eton); “a buffoon and an idler” (ditto at Oxford); a producer of “follies, gaffes, idiocies, scoundrelisms” (former boss Max Hastings); “a compulsive liar who has betrayed every single person he has ever had any dealings with: every woman who has loved him; every member of his family, every friend…” (Nick Boles, fellow Conservative MP). Johnson’s life is strewn with such assessments like these.
Those who voted for him in 2019—unless blind, deaf or over-generous to the point of idiocy—knew very well what they were getting. Boris Johnson was the bodger, the gaffe-monger, the overgrown schoolboy who steals all the sweets and second helpings for himself, then diffuses your annoyance with spaniel eyes and a solar smile. This was not a political titan or a man of any particular conviction. He was not even someone you’d trust in the back of a taxi with your wife or daughter. “Boris is the life and soul of the party,” his cabinet colleague Amber Rudd once remarked, “but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.”
Then there was his casual indifference to honesty and integrity. He’d misled his boss Conrad Black about his mayoral intentions, and his friend and supporter Andrew Mitchell about the seat he’d stand for as MP, making fools of both. Blundering comments as Foreign Secretary needlessly complicated efforts to obtain the release of an innocent British woman held in an Iranian prison, where she then continued to languish for the better part of six years. The mess he made of his job was not unlike the disordered state of his car, littered with discarded coffee cups and sweet wrappers. Dismissing this man as a potential Prime Minister ought to have been easy. So why wasn’t it?
The answers may lie in a brief period nearly 400 years ago, when Royalist Cavaliers and Parliamentarian Roundheads fought one another in the English Civil War. This tumultuous 12-year period saw the execution of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate, and the Restoration of the monarchy that followed. It’s a period from which Johnson seems unable to extricate himself (even David Davis’s “In the name of God, go!” was not originally addressed to Neville Chamberlain, as some papers reported, but by Cromwell to Parliament). He’s been compared to Charles II, Cromwell, and even Charles I. As a classicist, Johnson might have rhapsodized over the glories of Greece and Rome, but it’s to the 17th century that he more clearly belonged.
The parallel has its roots in the strange, post-Brexit atmosphere preceding his mandate in 2019 and the ideological fratricide into which the referendum plunged the country. Seldom has a choice of Prime Ministers been so stark. The ludicrous manhole-snapping, these-are-my-pronouns figure of Jeremy Corbyn looked just the man to take our sweets and order us to stop laughing. He was the Oliver Cromwell of modern British politics, promising a puritanical revolution supported by those ever-ready to seek and find offence. The world Corbyn offered looked bitter, shriveled, paranoid, joyless, and likely to be populated by ideologues who could barely register humour, let alone produce it. The rest of us—the majority—would be shunted to the margins. Corbyn may have told a 2013 meeting of the Palestinian Return Centre that British Zionists have “no sense of English irony,” but the remark seemed to apply more obviously to him.
Against all this was Boris Johnson, flawed in all the ways already mentioned, but also fun, facetious, ironic, and a political personality who added immeasurably to the juiciness and jollity of public life. The clash of styles was encapsulated by the starkly different political broadcasts the two parties released in the run-up to the UK’s 2019 general election. Labour’s were full of sermonizing talking heads, leadenly imparting home-truths. They were serious, caring, on the side of the angels but bled viewers’ joy in the here and now. Johnson’s approach, on the other hand, was summed up by the party’s final campaign ad—a skit on the 2003 political romantic comedy Love Actually. It was warm, Christmassy, good-natured, and seductive. Not only would Brexit be safer with Johnson, it seemed to reassure us; our sense of humour would be safer too.
This wasn’t irrelevant. Since the Brexit referendum, the British had been through a trauma replete with all the humourlessness of sectarian hatred. So much of choosing a Prime Minister is simply deciding who you’d rather have in your life on a daily basis—on television, on the radio, and in the papers. Would the electorate plump for frivolity or severity? On December 12th it delivered an unambiguous response. The British people preferred five years cavorting with P.G. Wodehouse than locked up with John Bunyan.
Following Labour’s historic election defeat (the worst for nearly 100 years), the Corbynites’ appalled indignation resembled that of someone bested in love by a caddish arch-rival. Hadn’t they combed their hair, professed their anti-racism, and held the door for their beloved—or, better still, had they not explained that holding open doors is sexist? Why then had she gone home instead with the boorish male chauvinist pig who had arrived late bellowing rugby songs?
Memories of that election are still vivid but seem surreal from this distance, given the current circumstances. The Telegraph’s Bob cartoon the morning after the election showed Boris dressed as Churchill stubbing a cigar out on Corbyn’s head. A furious Alan Johnson (still the best leader Labour never had) hissed at Momentum-founder Jon Lansman that he should take his “student politics” and get “out of the [Labour] party.” Journalist Tanya Gold provided a pinpoint description of Corbyn as “a raging man” and “a hero in tiny rooms.” The vituperation heaped on Corbyn—even by people in his own party—exposed the trauma his leadership had put the country through.
Under the circumstances, Boris’s accession and Corbyn’s departure felt like a new Restoration-period, when the Puritans were sent packing and the Hedonist-King returned. In the Telegraph, historian David Starkey teased out the parallels. It wasn’t only the context—a nation “in crisis,” an ideological civil war, the leader of a “narrow, puritanical, killjoy regime” thrust out on his bony arse—that Starkey dwelt upon, but the similarities between Boris and Charles II himself. He wrote of “the irrepressible, unapologetic priapism,” the preference for addressing problems “with a shrug or a quip rather than a reasoned argument,” and the monarch’s “easy, hail-fellow-well-met populism.” But also—and most fatally for Boris—Starkey mentioned Charles II's “contempt for pettifogging rules and regulations and a joyous life of half-full rather than half-empty.”
It was that last chicken which, over the course of his administration, came home to roost. With the onset of COVID, Boris and his government were to become purveyors and enforcers of “pettifogging rules and regulations,” the likes of which the British—outside of wartime—had scarcely ever seen. Beneath the suffocating heaviness of the pandemic, Johnson’s shrugs or quips were now out of currency, and “half-empty” became a generous description of life under lockdown. His need to act seriously suddenly robbed him of his mojo. It was lousy casting: like choosing Adam Sandler to play Mahatma Gandhi, or Miley Cyrus to be Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Soon, as the government shut down theatres and alehouses and threatened to cancel Christmas, it wasn’t Charles II to whom Johnson was being compared, but his Grinch-almighty enemy. “Boris Johnson and Oliver Cromwell have both managed to cancel Christmas,” ran a headline over the Independent’s letters page. “Oliver Cromwell did it but will Boris Johnson?” asked the Guardian in December 2020. “Not even Oliver Cromwell,” griped one writer on Twitter, “would dared have done what Boris Johnson is doing now to English rights and liberties.” That those rights and liberties continued to be enjoyed by Johnson and his entourage was, among other things, what proved so catastrophic.
Given the lengthy list of betrayals, infidelities, and acts of bad faith that might have finished Johnson off, it is perhaps fitting that it was a wine and cheese party that put him on the path to political ruin. After all, Johnson’s declared “policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it,” but finally he may have found it was better to do neither. From then on, it seemed like a runaway train had been set in motion. Lies, excuses, bluster, and waffle all followed, skewered by the nasal, whingeing tones of Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, and then rewarded with a catastrophic no-confidence vote from his own party in which he commanded even less of its support than Theresa May had managed in 2019.
Finally, it was the parochial sex scandal (gropegate) of Chris Pincher—a reckless, ill-advised choice as Deputy Chief Whip—and Johnson’s fatally flip remark on the matter—“Pincher by name, pincher by nature”—that proved to be the final proverbial straw. Party colleagues who had been sent before the nation’s television cameras with a characteristically misleading account of events decided that enough was, at last, enough. It was now open season for the scolds and moralists of parliament and press alike; a gift to the po-faced. Johnson always seemed like a character from another epoch; his detractors finally managed to convince the waverers that he had no place in this one.
Yet, in his Pincher comment as in other matters, Johnson was only behaving as the voters who handed the party he led a vast majority expected. Irresponsibility, mischief, and contempt for “pettifogging rules” were part of the draw. The leopard cannot change its spots, even with an account at New and Lingwood. That these qualities precipitated his downfall leaves us to lament that, for once, this seasoned comedian’s timing was poor.
Perhaps the character Johnson ended up most resembling was neither Cromwell nor Charles II, but Charles I, the latter’s doomed father. Like Charles I, Johnson seemed to have believed since childhood in his divine right to rule. Like Charles I, he had a fatal tendency to arrogance and complacency, and finally provoked his own regicide. “I’m a bit of an optimist, so it doesn’t tend to occur to me to resign,” Johnson is quoted as saying in Tom Bower’s surprisingly evenhanded biography. “I tend to think of a way of Sellotaping everything together and quietly finding a way through if I can.” The Sellotape, like his luck and reputation, finally ran out.
Just after his election as Mayor of London, Johnson was preparing to resign his seat as an MP. Bower tells us that Johnson was “standing alone in Westminster’s Great Hall, glued to the spot where Charles I had stood for his trial in 1649” and that he muttered, “I can’t believe I’m giving this up.” Given it up he has now, not by choice but for good.
Boris Johnson—the man who took us through the gamut from Charles II to Cromwell and finally back in time to Charles I, has been politically beheaded, and long live his successor. Finally, his erstwhile South London neighbours got to hear something more edifying than a domestic tiff over Beaujolais—the saws and hammers which accompany the construction of a scaffold, and the final, blood-curdling thump of the Parliamentary axe.