The respectable consensus on Boris Johnson’s resignation is that the Lord of Misrule was an opportunist who rose to power amid the mayhem of Brexit that he’d helped to create, but that his fecklessness finally caught up with him. There’s something in that, but more in what’s not. Although his critics will refuse to admit it, what’s mostly missing is the laughter, which is now a more important factor in British public life than before.
Much of public and media life in the UK—and it isn’t unique in this—is a search for laugh lines, and Johnson—instinctively but also with calculation—played heartily into this. He always had. In a largely affectionate biography, Andrew Gimson, Johnson’s former colleague at the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph, writes that, “To make people enjoy being led by him was an aspect of leadership which Boris mastered at a very young age. He made people helpless with laughter, and so great was their enjoyment that they scarcely cared what he did with their support, as long as he kept on amusing them.”
With the laughter came Johnson’s inchoate libertarianism—a strong aversion to condemning activities in which others like to indulge, especially those in which he likes to indulge himself, such as adultery. He is fond of telling the story of when Churchill, Johnson’s lodestar as a public figure, was taken aside during his second administration (1951–55) by his chief whip and told that a cabinet minister had been discovered having sex with a guardsman in Hyde Park at 3am on a freezing morning in February. The press had found out, which the whip advised, meant the minister would have to resign. “Caught with a guardsman?” Churchill asked. “Yes Prime Minister.” “In Hyde Park?” “Yes Prime Minister.” “On a park bench?” “That’s right, Prime Minister.” “At three o’clock in the morning?” “That’s correct, Prime Minister.” “In this weather! Good God man, it makes you proud to be British!”
To Johnson, this is evidence of Churchill’s goodhearted tolerance and defiance of narrow prejudice (this was a time when homosexual acts were quite severely punished), which are matched only by his own in generosity and wit. To be generous and broadminded in his speech (he is said to be quite mean with his money) is attractive to the many sinners among us. We see in the Prime Minister a person with the moral outlook of Casanova and yet (or, and so) finds attractive women willing to dally with him—a cheering thought. As one of these, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, who became his first wife, later admitted, “at least he made me laugh.”
In his book, The Churchill Factor, Johnson writes that, “Churchill matters today because he saved our civilisation. And the important point is that only he could do it.” He does not, however, fall into the trap (of which he is often accused) of imagining himself to be Churchill’s equal. “As a politician,” he writes, “I am not worthy to loose the latchet [buckle] on his shoes”—a characteristic piece of hyperbole, but one which, if he did think himself Churchill’s equal, he would surely not have written.
His achievements were “Getting Brexit Done”; the rapid rollout of a COVID vaccine (not something he closely superintended, but which did nonetheless occur on his watch); his enthusiastic support for Ukraine; and an early recognition of how vital it was to deliver what a majority had voted for in the EU referendum. The stakes in all of these were high, but do not compare to Churchill’s early, lonely grasp of Hitler’s imperial ambitions, followed by his leadership through the war. In these, the stakes really were civilizational: struggling with Hitler was in a different league to opposing the British establishment.
So, Johnson was no Churchill, but nor was he the strongman leader of his opponents’ imaginations. Indeed, as it turned out, he was quite the opposite. In his recent book, The Age of the Strongman, Gideon Rachman includes Johnson in a gallery of tyrants and semi-tyrants (the latter of whom have to pay at least some attention to elections, even if only to subvert them), along with Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Jair Bolsonaro, and others. Rachman makes the important distinction that figures like Trump and Johnson are inhibited by the strength of civil society and independent institutions, such as the justice system and the press. Even so, Johnson does not belong there.
Johnson wished to “get Brexit done” and he did. But Brexit had to be accomplished somehow, because voters in the 2016 referendum on EU membership had been told by David Cameron, who was the sitting Conservative prime minister at the time, that the result would be binding. Not to have delivered it, thereby pandering to the clamour from Remainers for a second referendum to get the right answer, would have been the more dictatorial act. Even if one were to concede that getting Brexit done required political muscle, it was democratically achieved.
Johnson’s subsequent premiership did not deliver on his promise to “level up” the country’s impoverished regions, nor was illegal immigration curbed. Notoriously vague about where he stood on the spectrum of the Right, Johnson turned out to be something of a metropolitan liberal, unsurprisingly uninterested in the detail of policy, including those that might increase his powers. The people’s Boris loved to be liked, and to play to an appreciative and merry audience. But to be liked as a prime minister, it is better not to act at all.
The now-embedded trope of equating Brexit with the election of Trump neglects the quite different cores of the two events. Insofar as he had any plan for a presidency he did not expect to win, Donald Trump gained the White House determined to cut America’s liberal institutions down to size. He left it—as the January 6th Committee is now making more and more clear—having encouraged a mob to try and destroy the just-elected Democratic presidency before it had even entered the White House. Brexit, as the post-referendum polling showed, was the upshot of a government-sanctioned referendum, peacefully carried through, the main object of which was to make clear that parliament, not the European Commission, was the centre of democratic political power in the UK.
Trump was and remains anti-democracy (and not just an anti-Democrat); Brexit was a vote for comprehensible politics. Trump has dragged much of the Republican Party down to his level; Johnson has left the Conservative Party fumbling to find a purpose, which he did nothing to define. His predecessors had come to office with a plan—Tony Blair with a determination to take the Labour party into the liberal centre, David Cameron seeking to purge the Conservatives of “nastiness”—but Johnson came in largely because the premiership was his most ardent desire. Once on the peak, the point of attaining it eluded him.
Other prime ministers assumed power, acutely conscious of the fact that in this job, at a time of wrap-around media, they had to behave themselves. Everything from which any emotion could be wrung would be, perforce, shared with the nation. And so, the death, in 2001, of a baby born prematurely to Gordon and Sarah Brown, had to be later raked over in 2010 with Piers Morgan before the general election in May that year. That Brown had been stricken by the loss of his child was evident; that he agreed to the interview in an unsuccessful bid to win the general election was also clear. Why else would quite a private man submit himself to a public show of that kind? Nevertheless, as with much else that was clearly unwelcome, he did it, just as other prime ministers did.
But Johnson didn’t. Accustomed to lying to wriggle out of embarrassments like the discovery of an adultery, he continued to mislead when he joined aides for impromptu parties at No. 10, when the strictest lockdowns and prohibitions on the public were in force. How could a man of such intelligence fail to realise that his bluster would unravel almost as soon as they were uttered? He had, it seemed, an inbuilt arrogance—a conviction that he was able to avoid consequences that brought others down, but which only made him stronger.
In the end, he ran out of that road. Ironically, what finished him was denying that he knew that a government whip, Chris Pincher, had a history of groping other men. Johnson refused to take the scandal seriously enough to fire Pincher, as his senior colleagues pressed him to do—an echo of the Churchill joke he liked to tell, and a reaction which accorded with his libertarian instincts. However, his colleagues finally wearied of delivering statements to the media that made them look ridiculous within days or even hours. It was the last straw.
When Lord Dannatt, a former head of the British Army, was confronted with the (admittedly faint) possibility that Johnson would be considered for the post of NATO Secretary General, he was quoted as saying: “There is no doubt that [Johnson] has done a lot of good, and our full support for Ukraine is just fantastic. But I am afraid that these are personal things, a lack of integrity, a lack of trust. Frankly, we do not want to put Boris Johnson on the international stage for further ridicule. He is a disgrace to the nation.”
What had Johnson been thinking as the Pincher scandal brought his administration to its knees? That charm and laughter, and the insignificance of a drunken man fumbling with the trousers of another would see him through? That the new fans of the Tories in the northern Labour-voting seats would dismiss the row as a non-event, worth a joke in the pub but no more? But Dannatt, albeit with a measure of pomposity, was correct. Prime ministerial lies—some of which were delivered to the House of Commons—are terribly, and rightly, consequential. If they are ignored, they will tend to grow. Parliamentary scrutiny becomes impossible. Ministers, taking their cue from the top, will tend to lie themselves out of trouble. That way corruption, and not just of language, lies.
Dannatt was also right in another sense: the full-throated support Johnson gave to Ukraine was an example to the rest of the West, and it was certainly “fantastic.” It seemed to arise from a judgement that Russia was serious about re-creating as much of the Russian empire as possible, and unless stopped, Putin would simply gobble up Ukraine before moving on to the other former Soviet states. The Ukraine war seemed to awaken Johnson’s romantic streak, just as Byron had embraced the Greek struggle against the Ottoman empire in the 1820s. While other European heads of state hedged their bets, promising weaponry they did not deliver or impotently begging Vladimir Putin to halt his invasion, Johnson disdained any posture but the most militant support.
Johnson’s previous exposure to Russia was to Evgeny Lebedev, whose castle in Tuscany he visited several times. On one occasion, while Foreign Secretary, he arrived in the morning dishevelled and hung over, having flown there privately without his security detail. He later elevated Lebedev to the House of Lords over the apparent objections of his own security services. In this, he showed how a pursuit of his own pleasure, and his determination to use the Lords to reward someone whose hospitality he had enjoyed, came before any sense of the dignity of his office. Johnson’s chameleon-like qualities—his charm and his sleaze, his courage and his habitual falsehoods—made him at once a figure of fascination and of gaiety, of arrogance and mendacity. The first buoyed him for decades: the second destroyed him, and has deeply damaged his party.
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