It was never going to happen. Boris Johnson was never going to walk into Downing Street, tuck in his shirt, brush his hair and remove the qualities that had defined his life and career: dishonesty, lack of seriousness, laziness and amorality. The fact that he was lifted to No. 10 on a flurry of media and political support is an indictment of a political culture that saw all these qualities and thought, you know what, he’ll be fine.
He didn’t, of course. And it was a surreal experience to watch a nation see “Boris” crumble before them. It was like watching a play in which the actors continually switch scripts – one minute they’re in love with Johnson, the next they’re hating Johnson. Overnight, the politicians who carried him to power, who supported him through his absolute worst times, switched roles and soberly resigned, disgusted by his actions. Newspapers that applauded him as he flew to No 10 and dismissed his mishandling of the pandemic, also backfired. In his final hours, the Daily Mail called him a ‘greased piglet’ and asked if he could ‘get away with it’. A more important question should have been asked: who greased it?
What did his supporters expect? A much more man nifty than the one they got I guess. One thing we were told over and over again was that Johnson was actually smart and cunning (you don’t hear that much anymore), and the clown show was just his way of disarming people. so that he can sneak his gigantic brain past them without warning or threat. His trick was to make people underestimate him, and then, haha! : the joke was on them as he nailed them with his epic political skills. Johnson knew exactly what he was doing, we were told, only last year by the Atlantic. “His electoral genius lies in his ability to prevent his opponents from thinking straight,” the interview read. A 2019 New York magazine portrait of Johnson, titled Boris’s Blundering Brilliance, claimed that “he was always earnest, using his humor and ridiculousness to camouflage political instincts which were, in fact, sharper than those of his peers”.
The problem is that it was not an act. And the insistence that it was, that Johnson wasn’t as bad as he looked, did it. Perhaps for this reason, the anger over his failure contained in the resignation letters from members of his cabinet is laced with bitter feelings of betrayal. We created you, they seemed to say, and you let us down. “I have been loyal to you,” Rishi Sunak’s letter reads, but the country was to be governed “properly, competently and earnestly.”
In short: we have exposed your lies, only for you to lie to us too. We indulged in the division of your culture war, only for you to divide us as well. We have reduced your volatility so you can fortify us against a Labor threat, only for you to bring chaos and scandal. You were supposed to calm Brexit uncertainty and feverish politics, a candidate who promised change but not real change, nothing to challenge the economic or social status quo. You were meant to be disruptive, but only aesthetically. We have “built in” a huge margin of error for you, only for you to go beyond even that.
Note that Johnson’s disappearance was not the result of so many ethical lapses that people couldn’t take it anymore, but of the downfall of co-conspirators. Yet all of this will no doubt be written into a reassuring morality tale about how there’s always a line too far. But the less comforting truth is that Johnson’s greatest crime was breaking a pact, strained by the pandemic and its aftermath: his role was to give the impression that he was on the side of the people , but to work quietly for their lords to whom the rules did not apply. Then he was caught partying during lockdown and that illusion was shattered. Even then, he had a chance; but he could not invoke humility to make amends. He simply became too much work, for his party and his media, so he had to leave.
The endings of the stories invite meticulous narratives. Johnson will likely be portrayed as a tragically flawed protagonist who flew too close to the sun, or whatever. But his story is bigger than him. His ‘electoral genius’ was simply being in the right place at the right time when an establishment rattled by an undeliverable Brexit, and given the jitters of a resurgent Labor under Jeremy Corbyn, needed a candidate to unclog everything and move the country forward in some way. The problems it was supposed to solve were, in fact, unsolvable. Brexit is still unresolved, with trade wars looming. Economic inequality continues to rise so sharply that a crisis in the cost of living threatens unimaginable devastation once the temperature cools. The national mood — something Johnson was supposed to lift with his glee — is grim.
Despite all of this, a form of Johnson will return. Liz Truss, accepting her new role as Prime Minister, paid tribute to him as a “friend”. We see her ghost in her: disembodied from reality, provoking fights and stoking a culture war to distract from the fact that Britain’s problems cannot be solved by some clever tax trick that will reduce inflation. or new policies on law and order, but by fundamentally reimagining how business is regulated and how wealth is accumulated and distributed. Johnson is a cautionary tale of what happens when a society becomes so attached to the status quo that it will continue to repeat the same mistakes, no matter how harmful.
Johnson is gone, but we have a new Prime Minister in whom the fear of change and the attachment to morally bankrupt modes of economics and governance remain. Johnson was a symptom of failure rather than a cause of it. His story is not about him, but about us.