Boris Johnson, the affable English rogue who resigned as United Kingdom prime minister on Thursday, has always been a man of means, in more than one sense. He is, of course, wealthy. But more importantly, he is a man and a politician whose many public victories appear never to have had any higher goal or purpose beyond themselves.
The means of politics—victory, conquest, and the defeat of one’s opponents—have always interested Johnson more than any principled end to which they might be directed. When he lost the Oxford Union’s presidential election as a university student, running as a Conservative, he simply ran for a second time as a Social Democrat, offering a different and more popular selection of policies, on the back of which he won. He famously wrote two contradictory op-ed drafts for the Daily Telegraph before taking a side in the Brexit referendum, choosing to publish (and campaign for) the Leave position in the end. When his impassioned broadside on behalf of the Remain cause was leaked after the fact, he tried unconvincingly to pass it off as a “semi-parodic” lark. Johnson’s estranged former aide Dominic Cummings has suggested that even during the coronavirus pandemic, the prime minister’s decision-making process was guided by an excessive sensitivity to the effect his own press was having on the electorate. “We cannot keep changing your mind every time the Telegraph writes an editorial on the subject,” Cummings claims to have told him.
But Johnson’s almost exclusive concern for remaining in power as opposed to doing anything with that power is what made him a fitting leader of the Conservative Party in the first place. Over the course of its long history, the Tories have turned political triangulation into a successful, if cynical, art form. As the English writer Peter Hitchens wrote in The Broken Compass, his book-length treatment of the postwar Tories, the Conservative Party is “an organisation whose main purpose is to obtain office for its leading figures at almost any cost.” At this task it has been remarkably successful. The conservatives have held a majority in the House of Commons for 72 of the past 100 years.
This dominance is somewhat misleading. Conservative members of Parliament would sit comfortably on the wings of both the Democratic and Republican Parties on socioeconomic questions were they elected to national office in the U.S. What makes them Tories one and all is their willingness to stand together, say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done to win. In other words, for the Conservative Party, the means of democratic politics—electoral victory—has become the sole end of politics. They are the finger-in-the-wind party; the party of the noun rather than the verb; of power rather than the power to do. Consequently, when party members and grandees wring their hands and point their fingers at Johnson, they are disavowing a leader who incarnates their own animating spirit.
The European question threatened to bring down this arrangement by forcing the party to confront a question of actual principle. That there was such a relatively even split between Leave and Remain among Conservative MPs is perhaps the best evidence that nothing unites this party more than the priority of power. In the end, Johnson won the party’s leadership contest in 2019 because of his massive popularity. He could simultaneously win Brexit voters and deliver a softer, more EU-aligned Brexit than many of them hoped for on account of the personal esteem in which he was held in post-industrial Brexitland. The massive, 80-seat majority that he won in the House of Commons during the 2019 general election appeared to vindicate his elevation to the leadership. It looked like a genuine political realignment: a host of seats in Labour heartlands swung Conservative for the first time, and the phrase “I’m voting for Boris” (not “I’m voting Conservative”) was uttered in regional working-class dialects all over the country. But it ultimately yielded little in terms of policy.
Though Johnson’s resignation speech admitted of no responsibility on his part for his premature exit from 10 Downing Street, the accomplished classicist will probably come to recognize the subtle hints of Attic tragedy that characterized his downfall. His greatest strength—an undeniable charm and irresistible personality—made him a phenomenally successful candidate. But it also enabled him to escape unscathed from a seemingly interminable series of scandals throughout his public life that would have been career-ending for others. Multiple affairs (and lies about them), one of which cost him his job in the Conservative Party shadow cabinet in 2005, bounced off him, as did a diplomatic slip of the tongue when he was Foreign Secretary that imperiled the release of an innocent British woman imprisoned by the Iranian government. Johnson had no reason to expect that the wall would break when he became prime minister. Some half-hearted incantation had always sufficed to banish the air of scandal from his presence. Why shouldn’t it work in Downing Street?
Sure enough, the scandals came. There was the refurbishment of Johnson’s apartment in 10 Downing Street: undertaken by a celebrity designer, involving wallpaper made of gold, and, crucially, paid for by a Tory Party donor, a fact that Johnson failed to disclose. There was the corruption investigation into one of his allies in Parliament that he tried to rig by overhauling the process of investigating lawmakers (said ally was guilty and resigned in the end). Then there was Partygate, during which footage and photos emerged of the prime minister attending boozy gatherings in Downing Street in violation of the government’s own lockdown rules. One of these parties took place on the day of Prince Philip’s funeral, which the Queen attended alone to comply with the very same rules. Eventually, it emerged that the man Johnson appointed to investigate the Partygate allegations hosted one of the soirees himself.
Johnson survived the vote of No Confidence that was held in the wake of Partygate, but the fatal blow turned out to be the alleged sexual improprieties of one of his appointees. Deputy chief whip Chris Pincher had to resign last week after allegations became public that he drunkenly groped two men at a party event. A paper trail of similar allegations against Pincher goes back years. After initially denying any knowledge of these accusations, the prime minister was forced to acknowledge that a few had been brought to his attention during his tenure as Foreign Secretary in 2019. It is even alleged that Johnson made light of them, describing his ally as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature,” which certainly has the ring of a Johnson-ism, if nothing else. After a slew of cabinet resignations, the game was up. (The most troubling fact about Pincher’s sexual misconduct is its relative banality in the context of the parliamentary Conservative Party: Another Conservative MP, Neil Parish, recently resigned from office after getting caught watching pornography on his phone in the House of Commons, while Tory lawmaker Imran Ahmad Khan resigned after being found guilty of sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy.)
If the decadence of today’s Conservative Party warrants comparison with the late Roman Empire, then its opposition in the form of the Labour Party is so feckless that the country has been all but reduced to a one-party state. The Tories are in a seemingly permanent state of stagnant and listless victory, like an army that would rather grow fat and drunk celebrating success on the battlefield instead of beating their swords into ploughshares and setting about the constructive work of peace. They cannot seem to fix on a single consequential reform that they deem worthy of the awesome power they wield with an 80-seat majority. Despite all the work to be done in the U.K., the party cannot find an end it deems worthy of its means.
Johnson is more consequence than cause of this malaise.
In the end, this failure of imagination, which he shares with his party, is Boris Johnson’s greatest shortcoming. As Aris Roussinos wrote for the British outlet Unherd in late 2020, the British state is in dire need of structural overhaul. The U.K. economy is both massively over-financialized, globalized, and London-centric. The most dynamic part of the economy concerns itself almost exclusively with providing financial liquidity to an ultra-wealthy foreign clientele. The post-industrial regions around London have been left behind, a fact that barely registers on economic metrics that prize GDP and stock market value above all else. A genuine futurist with the kind of mandate that Johnson’s government won in 2019, wielding the near-dictatorial powers of the British state, could have imposed the kind of reform agenda that American presidents can only dream of. Ideas and proposals were not lacking in this regard. Instead, Johnson leaves office with the regions relatively untouched, with home ownership out of reach for those not already on the property ladder, and with taxes about to reach their highest levels since World War II.
Why did Johnson’s Teflon coat wear off? Polls show the prime minister’s popularity waning in the wake of the recent scandals. It’s too soon to say conclusively, but it seems that the British electorate will allow someone to rise only so high while at the same time remaining an incorrigible rascal, perhaps owing to the proximity of the office of the prime minister to that of the queen. As for who will succeed Johnson, it is hardly a question worth asking: most of the likely candidates are mediocrities, whose vast personal ambition is matched only by their complete political flexibility. The party and the political culture that elevated Johnson will elevate them, too. Only true electoral competition can save the Conservative Party from its solipsistic decline.
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