Boris Johnson has brought the curtain down on a tempestuous three years in office, marred by a succession of scandals that culminated in the rebellion of his own cabinet and parliamentary group.
The UK prime minister, 58, bowed to the inevitable after the mass resignation of members of his government, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, as a mounting number of Conservative MPs launched excoriating public attacks on his judgement, leadership and allegiance to the truth.
“It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister,” Johnson said in a brief statement outside 10 Downing Street, blaming the “herd instinct” in Westminster for his departure.
Uncertainty and division
Johnson leaves a nation mired in political and economic uncertainty and still showing the strains of his singular though deeply divisive triumph – the UK’s exit from the European Union – as it confronts surging inflation, potential recession and the threat of widespread industrial action. The Conservatives trail the main opposition Labour Party in the polls, with the Tory reputation for sleaze having been revived on Johnson’s watch.
Officials said earlier that he wants to stay on as caretaker premier until October. Whether or not his party allows him to remain in office for that long, possible successors are already lining up. They include Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and the newly installed chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, as well as Sunak and ex-Health Minister Sajid Javid – who both quit the cabinet on Tuesday. The field is likely to swell.
Johnson’s position became untenable on Wednesday after a day of drama in Westminster that saw him confronted by Tory MPs, told to resign at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, and a delegation of cabinet ministers head to Downing Street to tell him his time was up. By Thursday, with even his new appointments calling on him to go, Johnson conceded defeat.
It’s a humiliating end to a political career that included his landslide election victory in December 2019 promising to “Get Brexit Done.” That was the high point for a PM who idolises Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, his tenure fatally undermined by the constant drip-feed of scandal that eroded Downing Street’s reputation for probity.
The final straw came with the prime minister’s decision to promote an MP, Chris Pincher, to a senior government role despite knowing of a formal complaint into inappropriate behaviour. Johnson then failed to come clean quickly enough on what he knew when Pincher was reported as having erred again last week.
While perhaps not the most lurid revelation in the annals of Westminster scandal, it added to the cumulative sense of a prime minister who flaunted his disregard for the rules. It was compounded by the fact that junior ministers and MPs were fed with erroneous information to repeat before the cameras, making them accessories to the falsehood.
Concerns over Johnson’s leadership had been growing for weeks and recently snowballed. It was only on June 6 that he narrowly survived a confidence vote among Tory MPs.
That was triggered after he became the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law in office. He was fined by the police in April for attending a 2020 party in Downing Street while the nation was subjected to government-enforced lockdowns aimed at battling the coronavirus. Dozens of his administration’s officials were also sanctioned for their involvement in so-called ‘Partygate.’ Johnson marched on undaunted, only to incur the ire of his party again.
Whoever replaces him – by winning a vote of Tory MPs and a subsequent ballot of party members – will inherit an economy buffeted by a cost-of-living crisis as inflation accelerates the most in four decades.
Unrest among workers is already fomenting as rail staff, postal workers, teachers and trial lawyers all declare walkouts or debate doing so, prompting parallels with the 1970s and the era’s mix of runaway prices and work stoppages.
The new leader will also have to repair a fractured party that’s looking tired after 12 years in power and suffered as Johnson’s government has lurched from one crisis to another. And they’ll have to mend relations with the EU that have been strained to near breaking point by Johnson’s threats to renege on the Brexit agreement he negotiated.
A former journalist who served as mayor of London for two terms and also as foreign secretary, Johnson never painted himself as a saint and indeed used his reputation as something of a rogue to draw public support.
His aspirations to higher office were evident in his decision to break with David Cameron and back Brexit in the 2016 referendum, while his popularity partly accounts for the close vote in favour of leaving the bloc in defiance of the opinion polls.
He went on to goad Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, from the back benches, pressing for a clean break from the EU and opposing her more conciliatory stance in negotiations with Brussels until she, too, was forced out and he took her place in July 2019.
In the election of that year, his Conservatives won a large majority because of Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” messaging and his ability to attract northern English voters who had traditionally preferred Labour.
His successor will need to find ways to rally similar support from the “Red Wall” – especially as Johnson struggled to deliver on his campaign promise to “level up” the British economy. They’ll also have to regain the trust of traditional Tories in rural and southern areas who abandoned the party in droves in favour of the Liberal Democrats at three byelections in little over a year. The good news for the new resident of 10 Downing Street is no general election is due until 2025.
The sense of scandal
Johnson’s successes include the rapid rollout of a coronavirus vaccine – the UK-developed AstraZeneca shot – even as he made headlines for being hospitalised in intensive care during the early days of the pandemic. And he won plaudits for Britain’s military and financial support for Ukraine as it battles Russia, earning praise from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
In the end, though, the sense of scandal prevailed over all else.
As well as “Partygate,” Johnson’s standing was damaged by a botched attempt last year to help Conservative MP Owen Paterson evade an ethics probe. There were also questions over how the refurbishment of the premier’s Downing Street apartment was paid for.
The scandal that ultimately toppled Johnson, however, was the revelation that he’d known of allegations about Pincher’s behaviour two years before promoting him. That was exacerbated by Downing Street’s changing position about exactly what Johnson knew and when.
Colleagues eventually grew tired of his apparent inability to be honest and open with the public, opting instead for a strategy of deflecting blame or simply hoping awkward questions would fizzle out.
It worked for a while. But in the end, Johnson – who as a schoolboy declared he wanted to be “world king” – is unlikely to spend much more time in Number 10 than Theresa May, whose premiership he torpedoed.
by Alex Morales & Emily Ashton, Bloomberg