Boris Johnson’s Rise and Fall Exposes Britain’s Broken Political Culture
The disgraced former Prime Minister’s long career at the top of British politics should be a matter of national shame
Boris Johnson’s long and rambling resignation statement, which paints himself as a victim of a vast cross-party conspiracy to reverse Brexit, has inevitably drawn comparisons with former President Donald Trump.
The comparisons are obvious. Both men are proven liars who rely on the support of a minority of fanatical supporters willing to forgive almost anything they do. And while both have used deception to get to the top of their respective political systems, both are now finally being found out.
However, while the former President is fairly well-adapted to taking advantage of the flaws in the American system, Johnson was almost laboratory-engineered to take advantage of the weaknesses in the British political system.
These weaknesses have been well-covered by Byline Times and include:
An inherent class deference
The dominance of the public school system
An archaic constitution reliant on gentlemanly honour, rather than written rules
The triviality of the press
A media system based on access and patronage, rather than accountability and transparency.
All of these flaws helped Johnson survive and prosper, despite being involved in the sorts of political scandals and policy disasters that in most other countries would have long ago brought him back down to ground.
But ultimately these weaknesses in the British system were his own weaknesses too.
His prioritisation of deference over competence meant he surrounded himself with weak and trivial figures, both inside Downing Street and Parliament. Any politician who counts among their closest allies Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries is never going to be able to manage an enduring political project.
His absurd resignation honours list, which included such political minnows as Andrea Jenkyns and Michael Fabricant is as clear a demonstration of his own flaws as it is possible to imagine.
Ultimately Johnson’s political career ended just how it began: with lies. It was not, as he claimed in his statement, a shadowy network of Remainers and leftists trying to reverse Brexit, who brought him down, but his own actions and those of his party. Despite his claims of a pro-European cabal conspiring to force him out, the Privileges Committee is actually made up of a majority of Conservative and Brexiteer members. Meanwhile his exit from Downing Street was secured, not by Sue Gray and Harriet Harman, but by the concerted efforts of his own Cabinet, who resigned en masse in order to force him out.
A Confederacy of Stooges
Viewed from outside our own borders, Johnson’s pre-eminence has long been a symbol of everything that is risible about post-Brexit Britain. As mocked on foreign newspaper front pages as he is revered on our own, Johnson’s success is often a mystery to outsiders. But what is obvious to European commentators, and late night US comics, is somehow far less obvious to those at the top of our own media system. Even on Friday night, as Johnson was forced into the second humiliating resignation in just twelve months, British commentators were still lining up to talk up the prospects of yet another return to the top, for what the BBC described as this “colossus” of British politics.
But the truth is that it’s over. In the end he resigned, not as part of some brilliantly clever Machiavellian plot to somehow get back into Downing Street, but because he had finally, after decades of relying on the indulgences of others, run out of willing dupes.
In 1988, a young Johnson wrote an essay about how to succeed in student politics. For the aspiring politician, the most important tactic was to surround yourself with what he described as a “disciplined and deluded collection of stooges”.
“The tragedy of the stooge”, he wrote, “is he wants so much to believe that his relationship with the candidate is special that he shuts out the truth”.
“The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of stooge.”
For decades Johnson was highly successful at coddling this self-deception. It was not that he was a special case, but that his supporters so desperately wanted him to be one, that they shut out the grubbier truth of the man and politician he really was.
Yet like all great deceptions, the Johnson lie ultimately got found out. His behaviour during Partygate, his subsequent lies about it and his final desperate attempts to resurrect his political career in recent months have all put the nail in what was left of his political career.
That it took so long is a testament not to his own inherent brilliance as a politician, but to our own inherent weaknesses.
In a sane and well-adjusted country the rise and fall of a man like Boris Johnson would stand as an immediate object lesson of everything that is wrong in our political system.
However, the front page of today’s Daily Mail, two of whose senior editors were initially lined up for gongs by Johnson, instead lauds Johnson as a “genuinely inspiring” leader, who had an “everyman vision” for the country.
It is hard to believe that even the Mail’s leadership really believes this.
Throughout Johnson’s life and career, his “vision” has been not so much “everyman” as one-man. As he famously proved back in 2016, when writing two articles both for and against Brexit in order to decide which would most help his cause, Johnson’s only enduring principle has been to secure whatever happens to be to his particular personal advantage at the time.
‘They’re Just People’
Yet such selfishness and narcissism can only get you so far.
Three years ago, under a plan hatched by his former aide Dominic Cummings, Johnson ordered his then Chancellor Sajid Javid to sack all of his advisers. When Javid refused, a bemused Johnson told him “but Saj, your advisers, they’re just people”.
But what Johnson couldn’t understand is that while to him they may have been “just people”, to be sacrificed in his endless monomaniacal quest for self-advantage, to Javid they were loyal colleagues and friends.
A far worse selfishness was evident during the pandemic, when he allegedly urged colleagues to “let the bodies pile high” rather than submit to opposition demands for an early lockdown. The result, which is currently being examined by an official public inquiry, was the unnecessary deaths of thousands of what Johnson would no doubt consider “just people”.
Subsequent revelations about Johnson’s own reckless behaviour inside Downing Street, as he forced millions of other people to remain selflessly in their homes, only added insult to this injury.
That Johnson was like this was evident from the very early days of his career. Whether it was being sacked for making up quotes and lying to his boss, or being recorded agreeing to help get a journalist beaten up, the evidence was always there for anyone willing to look at it.
However, despite the truth being so apparent, Johnson has consistently been treated by parts of the media as either a figure of fun, or as a source of mere political entertainment.
This reckless self-indulgence has resulted in deep damage to our country and its political culture.
Sadly this legacy, which is most evident in our ongoing isolation within Europe, will continue to harm us long after Johnson and his dwindling band of political stooges have moved on.
It should be to our enduring national shame that his exit took anywhere near as long as it did.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Byline Times.
Byline Supplement is an entirely reader-supported publication. To receive every post and support fearless independent journalism, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
After months of delays, Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list was finally published late on Friday afternoon.
The list, which is the most dishonourable of any resignation honours list in living memory, contained bucket-loads of honours for ultra-Johnson loyalists, political fixers and aides caught up in Partygate.
Among them were Knighthoods and Damehoods for a series of Conservative MPs, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Fabricant, Priti Patel and Andrea Jenkyns, who are distinguished mostly by their unthinking loyalty to Johnson.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial