Don’t stop me just because you’ve heard this story before, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson is once again fighting for his political life. And again, this time it could be the end. After another scandal, made worse by an absurdly stupid cover-up, two senior members of Johnson’s government – his Treasury Secretary and his Health Secretary – resigned in disgust.
Is the game really over then? For everyone else, the answer would certainly be yes. For Johnson, a man who can’t be ashamed, who knows? The answer is probably, although there remains a slim chance that he will find a way to overcome it. Anyway, the point is this: Britain is no longer governed.
The UK today is a country with no direction, no idea and no government able to of governing. It’s a country ruled by a man whose only goal is to stay in his post, backed by people whose only goal is to stay here, either because they wouldn’t make it into any other government or because they’ve decided staying is the best way to even get Johnson’s job.
All of this comes less than three years after Johnson won a general election victory that should have put him in power for a decade, a new Margaret Thatcher capable of reshaping the country in his image and to anchor a new economic and social model at the same time Brexit. Instead, Johnson threw it all away with a series of pathetic lies about pathetic decisions that exposed his own pathetic weakness.
The truth is, Johnson didn’t want to put the country on lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic but did so reluctantly and late – just to avoid bothering to follow the rules he didn’t believe in. When he was found out, he lied. When he got into trouble because of those lies, he was desperate to promote people he shouldn’t have, which he knew because people were telling him not to. When This was found out, he lied only to be found out again. On and on we go, an endless carousel of corruption.
Britain is now back where it was just a few years ago, when the country, torn apart by Brexit and the failure to implement the referendum, seemed completely ungovernable. Remember, that’s how Johnson managed to rise to prime minister in the first place: he presented himself as an agent of chaos who would break the rules to end the chaos created by those who should have known better (including himself, of course); he was hesitating all the time about what to do).
Today, after a brief moment of calm, chaos has returned and Johnson is back in the thick of it – a malevolent Mr. Bean who leaves a trail of havoc everywhere.
What Britain has is a Prime Minister with instincts, sometimes good, sometimes bad, who refuses, almost on principle, ever to temper or in any way override them. To do so, he says, would be a crime against what he believes is the most important thing in the world: the size of Boris, the comedic embodiment of his dreams and desires. Johnson’s refusal to ever water down that character was the source of his success, his superpower in a world of caution and calculation. And it will be his downfall.
On the way up, Boris was a sneering, scornful jester who could poke fun at the British political class, which had failed for years while patting itself on the back. In force, Boris On occasion, his disdain for the rules of this political class helped him, for example by navigating through the conventions used to prevent Britain from leaving the European Union.
Even after Brexit, his instinct has occasionally helped. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Johnson became one of the most popular politicians in that country after throwing billions of pounds worth of military equipment into the crisis, more than any other Ukraine ally in Europe. While it is true that any other British prime minister would have supported Ukraine, Johnson’s rejection of caution meant Britain was quicker than others to send deadly aid, and it has continued to do so at a much higher rate.
But those instincts now look like they’re going to cost Johnson his job. He constantly disregards official advice and tries to circumvent or entirely ignore the rules, seeing them little more as officials’ means of controlling him. The latest scandal revolves around the appointment of a Tory MP named Christopher Pincher, who has been accused of sexual impropriety, to a senior parliamentary position – responsible for enforcing party discipline. Johnson had been made aware of Pincher’s wrongdoing but ignored the warning and then claimed he was unaware when Pincher resigned after being accused of further impropriety. Johnson seems pathologically incapable of judging others for personal mistakes, most likely because he sees others’ mistakes as a mirror of his own, and he hates being at the bottom of others’ judgments. If this Tory politician sex scandal proves its undoing, the irony will be that it wasn’t a scandal of its own.
Johnson rules by instinct because he is ruled by instinct. He wants to spend money on schools and hospitals and police and infrastructure because that would make him popular. And when he’s popular, he’s happy to raise taxes to pay for it all. But then, when he’s unpopular, he calls for tax cuts to ease the pain. He wants a Thatcherian low-tax, free-market economy and he wants a social-democratic society, protected by tariffs, high taxes and large expenditures. He wants a wife and he wants a lover, responsibility and freedom, power and Popularity.
Boris Johnson will not change. As he recently said – his only honest statement in weeks – after being urged by colleagues to change his behavior in order to remain in office: “If you say you want me to undergo some kind of psychological transformation, I think that our listeners would know that’s not going to happen.” This is the great paradox about Johnson: he is both the most confident political leader I have met and a leader who seems to seriously reflect on his character flaws, and the one who seems most determined to do absolutely nothing about it. And so Britain hops from scandal to scandal, instinct to instinct, with no direction or purpose, unbound and ungoverned.