LONDON — I’ve always resisted comparisons between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Not anymore.
True, the British prime minister did not try to cling to power by instructing his supporters to rampage through the Houses of Parliament. He has not made, so far, spurious claims that he’s been cheated out of office. But there was, nevertheless, something Trumpian about the way in which he tried to stop being evicted.
Even after the defection of some key allies — including the chancellor of the Exchequer and the health secretary, usually more than enough to dislodge a prime minister — he refused to budge. As more resignations were announced, the defiant message was that he intended to tough it out. It was only when the resignations flooded in that he concluded the game was up. He was probably the last person in Westminster to realize it.
The manner of his departure speaks volumes about the man. He has always acted, like Mr. Trump, as if the rules didn’t apply to him. Facts are ignored if they’re inconvenient, or dismissed altogether. Nothing matters more to him than himself. Anything or anyone can be sacrificed in that cause — friends, family, colleagues, party, government. No other prime minister in the long history of Britain’s parliamentary democracy has been so prepared to sacrifice the governance of the nation to save his own skin. That is Mr. Johnson’s special achievement.
The reasons for his departure also tell you a lot about the man. Throughout his torrid private and public lives and successful careers as journalist and politician, he has been haunted by accusations of deceit and dishonesty. Usually for good reason.
Until he became prime minister, this was often excused (as allies often excuse Mr. Trump). It was just Boris being Boris. He was a bit of a character in a bland world of identikit politicians, so you had to accept the rough with the smooth. Yes, he was economical with the truth — a euphemism for lying — but he made people laugh. He meant no harm. He was a good chap. He liked a jolly jape.
The Conservatives knew his flaws. They didn’t know what he stood for (it depended on the audience and the time of day). But they didn’t care. They chose him as leader because he was a vote-winning machine. He won the Brexit referendum in 2016 and, three years later, the first impressive Tory majority since Margaret Thatcher’s landslide of 1987. He appealed to poorer voters in regions that had never dreamed of voting Tory.
For such gains the Tories were ready to forgive much. But at the pinnacle of government, under the scrutiny of a tenacious media, deceit and dishonesty are harder to hide or excuse.
When stories broke that 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, had effectively become Britain’s party central during lockdown, it wasn’t just the injustice of it that started to turn opinion against him. It was also the typical obfuscation and downright lies that followed.
Mr. Johnson denied there had been any parties. (There were 16, some long into the night.) OK, but they complied with the rules, he insisted. (They hadn’t; scores of partygoers have had to pay police fines, including Mr. Johnson.) He wasn’t really involved, he claimed. (Photographic evidence and the testimony of his own aides suggested otherwise.) Mr. Johnson finally took refuge in a line he’s long used as a last resort: I was misled and badly advised by my team. It’s never his fault.
It all served as a reminder that bluster and lies had always been his modus operandi. Almost every week seemed to bring a fresh scandal, mainly trivial — about who was paying for gold wallpaper in his Downing Street apartment or a planned $180,000 tree house in his official country residence — but all amplified and prolonged by his consistent refusal to give straight answers.
Matters came to a head in the past week over an ally accused, not for the first time, of making inappropriate sexual advances to young men. Mr. Johnson claimed he knew nothing about the allegations when he appointed him to oversee, ironically, the party’s discipline and welfare. It wasn’t true. The defense quickly crumbled, and the denials were hastily withdrawn.
Once again, ministers who had been briefed for the daily round of broadcast interviews by Mr. Johnson’s aides found the “party line” they’d been pushing reversed within hours or, worse, when they were still on air. The embarrassment was complete. Instead of a unique electoral asset, the prime minister had become an electoral liability. The last reason for sticking with him had gone.
Mr. Johnson will go down in the history books, for good or ill, for delivering Brexit — though even that needs to be qualified. The deal he said was “oven ready” turned out to be half-baked, as the people of Northern Ireland, left without a government, can testify. Mr. Johnson could be fast and loose with the truth on big matters as well as small.
He did make use of Brexit freedoms to take the lead in developing a vaccine for the pandemic. But that only made up for his government’s often catastrophic handling of Covid in the early months. And he has been curiously quiet about what other benefits we might expect from Brexit. His government, meanwhile, has been bereft of economic policy, even as the cost of living soars.
He fared better with Ukraine, where the Russian invasion created an opening for his Churchillian pretensions and lent itself to his broad-brush approach. But in Britain, his popularity plummeted.
There are those who told us he would change. He was bright, gifted, privileged. He would grow up, settle into the job. Many wished it, including me. But that was never going to happen. As even Mr. Johnson has said, what you see is what you get. He cannot help himself and he cannot change.
At least he did resign, albeit with visible reluctance and a hint of churlishness. Yet it’s a little unsettling to think that he’ll continue as prime minister for the next few months. For though the degradation he’s spread through the country’s democracy may not reach Trumpian levels, whoever takes over is in for a rude shock. Boris Johnson has been even worse than you might think.
Andrew Neil (@afneil), a former editor of The Sunday Times and a BBC presenter, is a broadcaster and chairman of The Spectator.
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