Boris Johnson’s declaration that he will eventually leave office resembled the man himself, as Britons have known him for three decades: chaotic, ambiguous, improvised, full of bluster and hyperbole, at once jocular and spiteful, gracelessly unapologetic and shockingly deaf to the mood of the moment.
Like everything during his three years in office, it was pitched directly at the people, with nothing but contempt for his party, his MPs or the norms and rules of electoral politics.
The question in the next weeks is whether the moment of collective madness that held him in office – along with many leaders like him worldwide – has come to an end, and voters have tired of dysfunctional men preaching a politics of pure negative reaction.
The shambolic absence of forethought and reflection we saw in his resignation speech, after all, is how Mr. Johnson practised journalism, how he entered politics and how he made his unlikely ascent to Prime Minister of a majority Conservative government at a moment that made him responsible for managing his country’s departure from the European Union and its response to a global pandemic.
That he managed neither with any competence or sensitivity is a point of agreement even among many Tory MPs who had seemed loyal to the man until this week. That, plus the mounting toll of Boris-adjacent scandals involving sex, petty corruption and rule-breaking, provided the text for many of the 54 resignation letters from cabinet ministers, cabinet secretaries and MPs that landed on his desk this week.
The great British mystery is not why his exit has been so messy and graceless, but how he lasted so long. Headlines anticipating his pending demise were a feature throughout his three years in office, beginning weeks after his July, 2019, ascent with a bold promise to have Britain leave the European Union by the end of October that year. It was quickly apparent that this would not come to be, but he ignored the calls for his resignation and blustered his way through it.
That bluster explains a lot about his staying power. It was not his party or MPs that kept him aloft – he treated them with disdain and indifference, and they constantly plotted to replace him.
Rather, it was the loyal rump of voters, mainly male and older and non-urban, who took delight in his antics and saw his clownish contempt as a refreshing everyman’s poke in the eye to a modern Britain – and to an imagined Europe that they’d come to blame for whatever ills they perceived.
From the moment he emerged as an anti-Europe challenger to the Tory leadership in 2008, he added a slapstick sensibility to a classic politics of anger and resentment.
This well-practised image as a unkempt, renegade outsider – one he shared with Donald Trump, who like Mr. Johnson was in fact a very wealthy insider – allowed him to escape scandals, minor and major, that would have brought down a more conventional politician.
He is certainly the only successful prime ministerial candidate to have refused to answer the question, “How many children do you have?” It is not clear whether he knew the answer. But whether it was his philanderous personal life, his serial failure to negotiate any sort of good deal for Britain or respond effectively to the pandemic, or his boisterous barrage of far-fetched schemes and unkeepable promises, he somehow managed to keep his balls in the air and his MPs behind him by holding onto this bloc of voters.
Until, this year, he didn’t. Mr. Johnson’s support in the polls fell faster than almost any sitting leader in modern British history. Perhaps it was the image of Mr. Johnson drinking and partying while ordinary Britons weren’t even able to attend the funerals of loved ones, under a law Mr. Johnson had passed. Perhaps it was the presence, after a long gap, of serious and relatable politicians in the opposition.
But it may simply have been the passing of a fad. Mr. Johnson was thrust into power as a late result of the great venting of political frustration that was the year 2016. Britain had to chew through two other Tory prime ministers and fail to digest that year’s slim anti-Europe referendum victory before it settled on Mr. Johnson as the ultimate expression of its need to purge.
There are signs that the purge is over. A majority of Britons now feel that their country was wrong to leave the European Union. The country is more favourable toward immigration, and immigrants, than it has been in decades. The old schtick that kept Mr. Johnson in the spotlight no longer goes over so well – as we saw on Thursday morning, when his final soliloquy landed with a dull thud, like a bad dream everyone would rather forget.
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