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13 July 2022

In 2019 Boris Johnson had everything he wanted. But the gods were waiting for him

The Prime Minister has left Britain unserious, divided and in need of complete transformation.

By Jason Cowley

As Boris Johnson stood at the podium outside 10 Downing Street, early in the afternoon of 7 July, and delivered what was in effect a resignation speech without a fixed date of departure, he expressed no contrition and showed no humility. As he rationalised it, he was being forced from office by mass ministerial resignations and “snake”-like treachery, more sinned against than sinning. The melodrama of Johnson’s premiership would soon be over – though seeking a more dignified departure he was determined to hang on as the titular head of a zombie government.

During the previous 48 hours we’d witnessed Johnson’s personal Götterdämmerung. The mansion built from bravado and bluster had collapsed from within and chaos had come again. It was a fitting end to a preposterous premiership. Johnson’s successor will become prime minister at a time of national emergency: war rages in Europe, the SNP is mobilising for a second independence referendum, inflation is the highest in the G7, and Britain is threatened by the worst cost-of-living crisis since the postwar consensus unravelled at the end of the Seventies.

Boris Johnson is a huckster and narcissist; we all know that. He has haters and detractors, of course, but also devoted followers, and some of them were there at the end, gathered outside Downing Street, as he tried to make sense of what had befallen him. Throughout his long public career, Johnson has been grotesquely indulged, permitted to set his own terms of debate – You do want to be prime minister, don’t you? Jeremy Paxman used to jest with a matey sneer. Now even Johnson’s former media enablers are firing bullets into his political corpse.

Johnson believes in the great man theory of history. A former classical scholar, he inhabits a pagan world of fickle gods and heroes and considers himself to be one of the great men of our times, to whom ethical norms do not apply. Rather, he seeks to create his own transcendent moral code. From an early age, as he postured and plotted at the Oxford Union, he sensed his destiny was to be prime minister – no ordinary prime minister but a contemporary Winston Churchill, about whom he has written so admiringly. He wanted to embody the spirit of the age, less Napoleon on a winged horse than a mayor on a zipwire, as it turned out.

[See also: The Tories’ new nightmare, by Andrew Marr]

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As I wrote after he became prime minister in 2019, Johnson uses laughter as a weapon. He encouraged us to laugh with him; like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, he crowned himself with laughter. He used laughter as a shield to deflect scrutiny and as a form of attack. He used laughter to separate himself from the herd. Andrew Gimson, this Johnson’s dutiful Boswell, admires “Boris” because he is not a bore. That may be so. And his premiership was never boring. But it was careless and dismayingly corrupt. Johnson’s Britain is fundamentally unserious, deluded about its role in the world, internally divided, and ripe for a political, economic and constitutional transformation.

In December 2019, when the Tories won an 80-seat majority at the general election, their biggest victory since the high point of the Thatcher years in 1987, Johnson must have felt unstoppable. A gifted populist, he campaigned as a kind of anti-politics politician and created a cross-class coalition, routing Corbyn’s Labour on a crude pledge to “get Brexit done”. In the immediate aftermath of victory, he must have believed he could stay in power for as long as he wished, achieve whatever he wanted. It did not happen. It could never have happened. Johnson could campaign but he could not lead. He had instincts but no strategy or grand plan. He lacked stamina for the gruelling demands of governance. Careless with detail, he was altogether too insouciant. And the gods were waiting for him. No sooner had he settled in at No 10 than he was grappling with the gravest pandemic for a century. For better and worse, his fate was to be the Pandemic Prime Minister, an instinctive libertarian forced to lock down the country. Be careful what you wish for.

Like Churchill, Johnson is a writer. He is celebrated for his flamboyant witticisms and arcane vocabulary, part Bertie Wooster, part early Evelyn Waugh. But as prime minister he never found an authentic voice – or tone or register – to speak to and for the British people, especially during the traumatic first year of the pandemic. For whatever reason – a reluctance to deliver bad news, a fear of the wrath of the libertarian right in his party, a failure of empathy – he could not, as the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote of Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic, step outside his political role and reveal “himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers”.

In the early weeks of the crisis, Johnson nearly died from Covid-19. After he emerged from hospital, he breathlessly thanked the NHS for saving his life. Would this near-death experience change the man? Would there be post-traumatic growth, a deepening of self-knowledge? Having faced death, would he live better, more virtuously and justly? We know the answers to these questions. As he showed outside Downing Street on the afternoon of his not-quite-resignation, Boris Johnson is capable of self-pity but remains a stranger to self-scrutiny. For this reason, his epic fall from power is more farce than tragedy. How could he have squandered so many advantages? What remains is the stench of his failure.

[See also: The death of “Boris” the clown]

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant