Boris Johnson became prime minister on the back of his personality, and his personality is why he has now been driven from the job. While his image was, to no small extent, a brilliantly constructed artifact, some Falstaff, some Wooster, some skillfully curated erudition, some great jokes, and more than a touch of the card, it worked well in the media where he made his name and, eventually, in the political arena on which this profoundly ambitious man had long set his sights. “Boris” — few British politicians are popularly known by their first name — won election and then reelection as mayor of London at a time when no other Tory could. It is also highly unlikely that Brexiteers would have prevailed in the June 2016 referendum without Johnson having taken the role that he did, a decision that owed as much to his determination to clear the way to Number 10 as to any great distaste for the EU, an institution that he found more ridiculous than oppressive.
Once the hapless Theresa May had been pushed out of the way, Johnson became prime minister and, as in London, quickly showed how he was able to reach across established party lines. “Boris” built an electoral coalition between long-standing Tories in the south and traditionally Labour voters further to the north, winning the Conservatives their biggest general-election majority since Mrs. Thatcher’s heyday and, crucially, seeing off the genuinely dangerous Jeremy Corbyn in the process. He also (more or less: there is the small matter of Northern Ireland) got Brexit done, delivering on the promise that did much to get him elected. He can claim considerable credit for Britain’s successful vaccine rollout. He took a leading role in rallying support behind Ukraine, something for which Volodymyr Zelensky thanked him yesterday. All that matters — and it matters a lot — but it’s still not hard to think that Johnson squandered his majority. Never a convincing man of the Right, his approach to the economy has been interventionist, extravagant, and, for taxpayers, ruinously expensive. By doubling down on his predecessor’s feckless commitment to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions within an unrealistically short time, he has set the stage for eventual economic and political disaster. No one was better equipped than Boris to take on the woke, but, mostly out of cowardice and laziness, he declined to do so.
His mistaken policies as well as an absence of any obvious administrative skills helped erode his support, but Johnson’s downfall ultimately owed more to his failings than his failures. Self-centered, serenely uninterested in the rules by which lesser mortals are expected to play, and with an attitude to the truth of almost postmodern flexibility, he has drifted into scandal after scandal, none of them of huge significance in themselves, but almost all of them made worse by evasion and deception. Conservative MPs had every reason to expect more of the same, and with hard economic times ahead, and an electorate — having seen too much of the trickster behind the mask — wearying of Boris’s shtick, they decided, understandably enough, that it was time for him to go. However, having dispensed with the knave who was for a while also their ace, the Tories now must find a leader who can revive an electoral coalition that only Boris could ever have built. Good luck with that.
There are literally countless troubling incidents that pre-date his premiership, too – like conspiring to beat up a journalist, a slew of unequivocally racist and homophobic comments (Islamophobic hate crimes increased by 400 per cent in the week after his comments comparing burqa-wearing Muslim women to “letterboxes”), and jeopardising Nazanin Zhagari-Ratcliffe’s safety. But in the interest of saving time, we’re going to focus on the worst moments from Johnson’s time as Tory leader.
Political commentators like to excuse Boris Johnson’s abject performance in the 2019 General Election Campaign by reaching for elaborate metaphors about how anyone would have beaten Jeremy Corbyn: even a goose wearing a rosary! They like to claim that they knew all along that Johnson was a blaggart, an oaf and a fool but were forced, with the heaviest of hearts, to vote for him all the same – the alternative of mild social democracy being so much worse. In truth, Johnson benefited from a wildly partisan media, which afforded him endless leniency while at the same time monstering his opponent. ‘Get Brexit Done’ was a strong message, too; by that stage, after years of torturous negotiations, even some Remainers were bored of having to think about it, or worse – discuss it in the pub. But, while it’s easy enough to understand why he won, Johnson’s game was shambolic throughout, and he lurched from one humiliation to another.
There are too many blunders to mention. When an ITV news interviewer attempted to show him a picture of a young boy lying down on a pile of coats while waiting to be seen in Leeds infirmary, he refused to look, then grabbed the reporter’s phone and slipped it into his own pocket. He chickened out of a scheduled interview with Andrew Neil, despite the fact that Corbyn had already done one – so much for the English upper class’s sense of sportsmanship and fair play. He swerved a Channel 4 debate on the climate crisis, which prompted them to replace him with an ice sculpture, and later hid in a fridge to avoid having to speak to Piers Morgan (that one is admittedly a little more sympathetic.) He still won though, so even if he was the clown, the joke was very much on us.
Johnson’s ‘tanked-topped bum boys’ comment is well-known but personally, I prefer the deep cuts, like the time he agreed with Robert Mugabe that Labour was composed of “gay gangsters”. Chance would be a fine thing! Obviously, people can change their opinions over time, but he’s yet to apologize for any of this. What’s more, his time as Prime Minister has proven that his hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community persists even if it’s mostly directed at more vulnerable targets. Under his watch, the Tories introduced a ban on conversion therapy which failed to include trans people, while Johnson himself has made a number of transphobic comments. The trans community aren’t the only marginalised group who have suffered under his leadership: the Tories continue to deport LGBTQ+ asylum seekers to countries where they face violence and even death, and are pressing ahead with their Rwanda asylum plan despite acknowledging that LGBTQ+ refugees risk being persecuted if sent there.