In the final hours before Boris Johnson’s resignation on 7 July, as he was still clinging desperately to power, a source close to the Prime Minister outlined the argument he was making to cabinet ministers as to why he should be allowed to stay in office. “He has been spelling out to them that 14 million people voted for him,” the unnamed source told the BBC. Removing him now, the person said, would be to ignore that overwhelming mandate.
That is not how British elections work. Under the UK’s parliamentary system, as Johnson well knows, individual voters cast their ballots to elect their local member of parliament (MP) to the House of Commons. The party with the most seats generally forms the government, with its leader then becoming the prime minister. The only people who directly voted for Boris Johnson in the 2019 general election were the 25,351 residents of Uxbridge and South Ruislip who chose him to represent them, but even then only as their local constituency MP.
Yet Johnson persists in elevating himself above the British political system and perpetuating the fiction that he has earned a personal mandate to rule. He repeated that line again outside 10 Downing Street in the announcement of his departure (though not quite yet), boasting about the size of the Conservative majority in last general election. “The reason I have fought so hard in the last few days,” he insisted, was because he wanted “to deliver that mandate in person”. As he explained it, “I felt it was my job, my duty, my obligation to you to continue to do what we promised in 2019.”
Besides being quite obviously nonsense – are we really supposed to believe that the man whose earliest professed ambition was to be “world king” has come to see himself as a humble servant of the people? – this personalisation of power marks a dangerous trend. Wittingly or not, Johnson demonstrates some of the classic instincts of populist authoritarian leadership as he attempts to set himself above the norms and institutions that might constrain others, cloaking himself in the imagined authority of the will of the people. As one senior MP told the New Statesman’s Harry Lambert of Johnson’s persistent refusal to resign earlier in the week, his actions represented a “constitutional coup”.
To be clear, Boris Johnson is not Vladimir Putin. He has not invaded a neighbouring country or assassinated his political opponents. Neither is he Donald Trump. He has not summoned his supporters to attack the House of Commons or questioned the integrity of election results, although he did temporarily suspend parliament to stifle debate during Brexit negotiations in 2019 before the Supreme Court ruled he was acting unlawfully.
Nor does Johnson fit the traditional Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist authoritarian mould. He is not building a system, constructing an ideology, or enforcing rigid party discipline to capture the essential organs of the state. Quite the opposite. Johnson’s approach to power is borne of extraordinary privilege and a deeply rooted sense that he deserves to rule.
Behind the bumbling public image and the studiously ruffled hair is a man who appears to believe that he knows best; that he is smarter than his opponents, able to outwit his rivals, and uniquely able to connect with the British electorate. Johnson has mastered the same illusionist’s trick as Trump by appearing to be both fabulously rich and in touch with the concerns of the archetypal working man and woman. Fully persuaded of his own brilliance and indispensable appeal, Johnson governed – and partied – as though the workaday rules that applied to other people did not apply to him because of the strength of his personal brand.
Even as his government collapsed around him and minister after minister trooped into Downing Street on 6 July to tell him that it was time to go, he appeared to be convinced until the last moment that he could fight on, that his personal appeal was so compelling that he could yet turn the situation around. Perhaps he still believes that. His resignation speech on 7 July sounded more like a man who was still campaigning than one who was admitting defeat.
At the same time as Johnson’s speech, Theresa May, the prime minister he ousted in July 2019, delivered a lecture on public service at the Institute for Government in London, in memory of the late Conservative minister James Brokenshire. Notably, her address was titled “Restoring faith in politics”. May joked that she would have given the same speech regardless of recent events, before delivering a scathing rebuke that was clearly aimed at the man who had succeeded her and the culture he has encouraged at the highest levels of government.
Noting the decline of public trust in politics, with a December 2021 poll finding that just 5 per cent of respondents believed MPs were in politics for the interests of their country, May compared the situation to cricket and the importance of abiding by the spirit and traditions of the game as well as its laws. “I take the same view of politics,” she said. “Breaking the rules – and breaking the spirit of the rules – causes injury to the standing of our democracy.”
Boris Johnson has done both: breaking the law as well his own government’s lockdown rules. It would be naive to believe that many politicians are motivated solely by the notion of public service, but it is essential for the long-term health of British democracy that Johnson’s personalist approach to power and his disdain for rules and norms ends with his premiership. His successor cannot continue down this dangerous path. His should be a cautionary tale, not an example for others to follow.
[See also: Who is the front-runner for the Tory leadership?]