UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his resignation as Conservative Party leader Thursday, bringing his scandal-plagued tenure to an end after less than three years.
Johnson was left with little choice but to step down after several high-profile members of his cabinet resigned in protest this week over his handling of misconduct allegations related to government officials. Dozens more members of his government have also quit.
Johnson was ultimately undone by his response to fallout from the resignation last Thursday of deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, amid allegations Pincher had groped two guests at a private dinner the night before. While he did not admit the allegations directly, Pincher said in a letter to Johnson last week that “last night I drank far too much” and “embarrassed myself and other people.” Other historical allegations of misconduct by Pincher emerged in the ensuing days.
Johnson initially denied being aware of some of those allegations, but ultimately the Prime Minister was forced to admit he had been briefed years before and apologize for his decision-making.
It was the final straw for many political allies who had supported Johnson through crisis after crisis over the years. In recent months the Prime Minister had been facing a barrage of criticism from all sides over his conduct and that of his government, including illegal, lockdown-breaking parties thrown in his Downing Street offices, for which he and others were fined.
Johnson faced numerous other scandals that hit his standing in the polls – despite his 80-seat landslide general election victory just two and a half years ago. These include accusations of using donor money inappropriately to pay for a refurbishment of his Downing Street home and whipping lawmakers to protect a colleague who had breached lobbying rules.
Two weeks ago, the Conservatives lost two key by-elections – results that were blamed on Johnson personally.
In early June, he survived a confidence vote, but the final count of his lawmakers who rebelled against him was higher than his supporters expected: 41% of his own parliamentary party refused to back him.
That vote was triggered after months of speculation over Johnson’s future. The so-called “Partygate” scandal, which saw Johnson found guilty of breaking his own Covid-19 laws by attending a gathering to celebrate his birthday at a time when such events were banned, has dogged Johnson since the news broke late last year.
A controversial rise
With the possible exception of his hero, Winston Churchill, Johnson was perhaps the most famous politician to enter Downing Street as Prime Minister, having forged a successful career as a journalist, novelist, TV personality and London mayor in the preceding decades.
He was a populist before populists really existed. His controversial comments – comparing Muslim women who wear face coverings to letterboxes, or calling gay men “bum boys” to name but two – appalled many. But he got away with his Lothario image, the public seemingly happy to accept his alleged affairs and love child. It seemed that Johnson could essentially laugh his way through any problem.
Yet, for all his ambition and charisma, the job of Prime Minister seemed out of reach for most of his adult life. Those who know Johnson personally say that he loathed the fact that many in the British Conservative elite saw him as a useful campaigning tool but more of a comedian cheerleader than a serious statesman.
Even during his time as Mayor of London, winning two terms in a city that traditionally doesn’t vote Conservative, the most memorable moments of his time in office are images such as him inelegantly dangling from a zip wire or forcefully rugby tackling a 10-year-old child while on a trade visit to Tokyo. He just wasn’t considered serious enough for the top job.
Then Brexit happened. Johnson led the successful campaign that defied the odds and saw the UK vote by a narrow majority to leave the European Union in 2016.
Overnight, he went from being a man who seemed to have made a fatal political error by backing the wrong horse in the referendum, to the figurehead of a mass rebellion that had just overrun the entire British establishment.
On paper, Johnson was an unlikely candidate to become the voice of those who felt themselves to be voiceless. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York City in 1964 to an internationalist family. As a boy, Johnson would tell friends and relatives that he wanted to be “world king” when fully grown, his sister wrote in a family biography.
He was educated at Eton College, the most exclusive private school in the UK, alma mater of 20 Prime Ministers, followed by the University of Oxford. While at Oxford, he was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club: An elite all-male group for wealthy students, famed for ostentatious (and sometimes rowdy) displays of wealth such as vandalizing restaurants, then paying for the damage on the spot in cash. Johnson was never proven to have been personally involved in any such activity.
Johnson worked as a journalist for establishment newspapers, most notably The Daily Telegraph, which made him its Brussels correspondent in 1989. It was here in Belgium that Johnson began writing what would become the most important chapter of his life story: Brexit.
Although the Telegraph was firmly Euroskeptic, the UK’s exit from the EU was not really on the cards at the time, and even English Conservatives seemed to accept this. However, they lapped up Johnson’s guerrilla journalism, which often stretched the truth of what was actually happening in Brussels.
The most famous example of this was a story by Johnson that claimed the EU was planning to ban the sale of bendy bananas. The EU repeatedly debunked that and many of the stories that Johnson published.
In 1999, Johnson was offered the editorship of The Spectator, a weekly magazine often jokingly called the “Conservative bible.” He accepted, agreeing with the owner that he would drop his by now well-known political ambitions, according to a biography by the political journalist Andrew Gimson. He kept his word for all of two years and stood to become a member of parliament in 2001.
In the years that followed, Johnson was swallowed by the conservative establishment. He carried on writing the conservative script as a journalist and building a base of loyalists both inside and outside of politics.
As Johnson’s confidence grew, he was determined to show the Conservative Party that his appeal went beyond the British right. In 2008, he was elected the Mayor of London – a liberal, cosmopolitan city that did not traditionally vote Conservative. Johnson believed that he was showing his party that he had the chops to drag them into the 21st century. The problem for Johnson was that they already had a new, young leader – his old schoolfriend and future Prime Minister, David Cameron.
It was Cameron who ultimately made Brexit possible. After winning his second general election as Conservative leader in 2015, he decided to hold the EU referendum on the understanding that Johnson would fall in line and be an asset for the “remain” campaign.
Instead, in February 2016, Johnson shocked the nation by announcing on the front page of his old paper, the Telegraph, that he would defy Cameron and lead the Brexit campaign.
The rest is history. Johnson turned the establishment on its head and became the most influential politician in the UK. While he didn’t become Prime Minister immediately, he continued to build his power base, undermining then-incumbent Theresa May as she struggled with Brexit for three years.
As foreign secretary under May, he was blamed for worsening the predicament of the jailed British-Iranian mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after wrongly saying in 2017 that she was in Iran teaching journalists, rather than on holiday, at the time she was detained. But his patchy record in the role did not appear to cost him much support within his party.
A populist who became unpopular
Johnson’s time finally came in July 2019 when he became leader of the Conservative Party, claiming around two-thirds of the membership vote. His brash style was vindicated later that year, when he silenced all of his opponents in a landslide election victory that would finally allow him to, as his own slogan boasted, “Get Brexit Done.”
It truly seemed that the stars had finally aligned for Johnson, who desperately wanted to be taken seriously. He made Brexit popular and personally dragged it across the line. He had completed his transition to the role of statesman. He had proved everyone wrong.
Yet, as the clock ticked down on so-called Brexit Day, January 31, 2020, a deadly virus was already causing alarm in Asia. It would soon start spreading across Europe and kick off the crisis that would remove him from office.
Johnson had a mixed pandemic. He was lauded by the public for the amount of state spending unleashed to mitigate its impacts on those whose jobs and livelihoods were threatened, but panned by the more conservative elements of his party. He was accused of responding too slowly, but also for making lockdown rules so complicated even he and his team in Downing Street couldn’t follow them.
The breaking of these rules by Johnson and members of his team, the economic fallout of the pandemic leading in part to a cost-of-living crisis, his handling of the Pincher scandal and a general sense of the shine wearing off the Brexit golden boy were ultimately too much for his party. It seems its members couldn’t stand the thought of Johnson staying on and dragging the party into its grave.
His political career is a story of near-misses, sex scandals, celebrity, controversy and revolution that ended in personal tragedy. The man who only ever wanted to be taken seriously ended up, ultimately, as the joker once again.