The ignominious end of Boris Johnson: the difference between ‘big top’ politics and personalized populism

After an excruciating few days in which many of his colleagues left his cabinet over yet another scandal, Boris Johnson finally resigned on July 7 as leader of the Conservative Party. As the UK is a parliamentary democracy, he continues as caretaker prime minister while the race to replace him unfolds. This situation has only caused more confusion and parentheses.

In a characteristic pardon-not-sorry speech, Johnson made it clear that the problem was not him or his policies, but that his own party had decided to move in another direction. The “pack” had decided to find a new leader, leaving the PM without a colleague and without friends in front of No. 10.

Johnson’s departure will mark the end of another tumultuous and chaotic period in British politics. However, the question remains: how did one of the most successful politicians of recent years go from winning a large electoral majority in 2019 to being forced to resign less than three years later?

For some, the answer is obvious. Johnson drew accusations of scandal, impropriety and incompetence in the same way that Donald Trump draws accusations of arrogance, misogyny and hatred. The justification for this point of view is obvious, given his personalities and past performances.

Of course, even the most cynical commentator would have a hard time imagining the inventiveness of the ways in which Johnson offended everyday opinion. From a wallpaper scandal, to a fine by police for violating their own confinement rules, and finally treating with indifference serious allegations of sexual misconduct against a member of their government, the charge sheet is long and fresh. At least in British politics. Multiple quasi-apologies and half-hearted mea culpas have provided water for the mill.

But if we privilege the role that scandal plays in this story, then the implication might be that all was otherwise well under the Johnson administration. This is far from the case. What became obvious to his own group was that behind the buffoonish exterior, quick wit and boring retorts, there was very little.

We are used to political scientists discussing Thatcherism, Blairism, Reaganism, etc. What exactly was “Johnsonism”? Beyond a few catchphrases like “level up,” the answer isn’t much.

Johnson successfully reached out to some working-class sections of the population who would not normally vote Conservative with a promise to “get Brexit done”, but beyond this gesture in the direction of earthy nationalism, there was very little in his political agenda for them. Anyone feeling increasingly pressured by rising inflation or seeing their standard of living erode will find few concrete initiatives to help them.

It soon became clear that Johnson was unable to maintain the loyalty of his newly recruited voters. Meanwhile, in courting his new base, her neglect of the communities his party has relied on for decades has cost her votes in other areas. The recent by-election results held in very different constituencies in England on the same day confirmed all this. A northern seat won by the Conservatives in 2019 reverted to Labor and the Lib Dems took an ultra-safe seat in the south-west.

style over substance

Even on the right, Johnson’s appeal and traction were palpably slipping. There was little guarantee that the once staunch advocate of free market economics, enterprise and low taxes would ever be the guy again. Having squandered hundreds of billions on COVID-related measures, Johnson seemed reluctant to contemplate how the bill would be footed.

But isn’t this just a form of “big top” or centrist politics of the kind associated with Emmanuel Macron in France or Angela Merkel in Germany? Wasn’t Johnson in seeking the broader coalition of forces simply playing the game of contemporary electoral politics? Give something to everyone and watch the votes roll in.

Such an analysis overlooks the fact that the political center also has a certain logic of its own. In Western Europe it is based on the social democratic belief that a healthy economy is needed to maintain public services, but equally that efficient public services are needed to maintain a strong economy.

Boris Johnson sitting on a plane surrounded by reporters.
Always a one man show.
Alamy/PA

There is an ideological core to centrism that was absent from the Johnson administration. This was not the catch-all policy found in continental Europe, built from scratch with the backing of a cartel. It was a single-issue campaign around Brexit that lost traction and importance once that goal was achieved, or was seen to be achieved.

Politics under Johnson morphed into a campaign to keep Johnson in power. Politics served little more than to keep the man famous for his childlike declaration that he wanted to be “King of the World” in the spotlight. Power for power. Johnson for Johnson’s sake.

In the end, his party realized the realities of this maverick and selfish figure. They finally understood that they had created, in the parlance of contemporary management, a “single point of failure.”

Johnson’s multiple failures, of character, of policy, of leadership had created a gigantic source of risk for all of them. They stood him up on the plank, carried him to the end at the point of many swords, and finally pushed him into the depths. An ignominious end for an ignominious figure who presided over an ignominious period of British politics.

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