It’s hard to think of any UK prime minister who hasn’t faced a scandal of some sort.
Whether it was David Cameron’s lobbying for finance company Greensill Capital, or a string of sexual allegations during Theresa May’s rule, or the ‘cash-for-honours’ scandal during Tony Blair’s time — everyone had a run-in with a scandal, which is inevitable in politics, be it the UK, India or anywhere else.
But none of these leaders resigned because of how they handled or mishandled a particular scandal. Rather, they had trouble swimming against larger political currents.
Cameron resigned after the UK voted to leave the European Union. For May, it was her inability to overcome the Brexit deadlock in Parliament. And Blair jumped ship because of the Labour Party’s successive defeats in elections to the Scottish Parliament and in English local elections. Moreover, none of them waited for their 50 or more members of parliament to resign before they saw the writing on the wall.
Boris Johnson didn’t see the writing on the wall on Wednesday when his cabinet members gathered at his official residence to persuade him to quit. Nor did he see it when two of his key ministers — Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid — stepped down saying the British people “expect integrity” and that there are “standards…worth fighting for”. He resigned Thursday but the Boris saga looks far from over. And that is why, Boris Johnson is the ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
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Some argue that Johnson should have had an inkling when last month, 41 per cent of his party members voted against him in a trust vote. Mind you, this rebellion was bigger than the one suffered by Theresa May in 2018. Go figure. May, who couldn’t overcome the Brexit deadlock, still had more support from Conservatives than Johnson, who did manage to overcome it.
This is what makes Boris Johnson’s downfall so interesting. He seems to have done a decent job handling major issues like Brexit and working with Western allies to help Ukraine amid the war, but continually flip-flopped on scandals back at home.
As former Johnson loyalist and Brexit pointman David Frost wrote in an article for The Telegraph, the “partygate” affair and the Chris Pincher sex scandal show how when “confronted with a problem which appeared to reflect badly on the Prime Minister’s judgment, we saw once again the instinct was to cover up, to conceal, to avoid confronting the reality of the situation.”
During the “partygate” scandal, Johnson first told the British parliament that no Covid-19 rules had been broken at the parties. But as more photos from the events emerged, he was forced to backpedal and eventually apologise. Similarly, with the Pincher scandal, Johnson continually changed his tune about how much he knew about the deputy chief whip’s past sexual assault allegations before appointing him to the post in February 2022.
But even after resigning Thursday, Johnson isn’t able to confront reality. The 58-year-old former London mayor said he plans to stay on as caretaker prime minister while a successor is chosen, defying calls to leave immediately.
Headlines like “Gone but not gone” and “Boris Johnson is the worst prime minister of my lifetime—and I grew up under Thatcher” continue to dominate British media as the country grapples with Johnson’s resignation and looks to a successor who will hopefully undo the damage he has done.
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Johnson continues to cling on to power, attributing the string of resignations in his government to “herd mentality”.
It’s the kind of delusion that reminds of ex-Pakistan PM Imran Khan who was ousted in April this year and continued to peddle the theory that “foreign elements” played a role. But in Pakistan, it’s clear who pulls the strings in politics — and they aren’t foreign at all.
Before Khan, Donald Trump behaved in a similarly delusional manner, refusing to accept the results of the 2020 US presidential election — a dangerous flame that helped ignite the 26 January Capitol riot.
India Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri explains this phenomenon in his book Delusional Politics. “Many democratically elected leaders of the twenty-first century display streaks of recklessness, megalomania, bizarre self-obsession and political views that are difficult to characterise,” he writes.
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Deviance from conservative values
When Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, it was obvious that he was going to be an unorthodox leader.
As London-based Tom McTague once wrote in The Atlantic: “Johnson is nothing like the other prime ministers I’ve covered. Tony Blair and David Cameron were polished and formidable. Gordon Brown and Theresa May were rigid, fearful, cautious. Johnson might as well be another species.”
He didn’t comb his hair. He loved photo ops and didn’t always pay attention to subtext. We in India saw this first hand during his trip to New Delhi in April when he enthusiastically jumped aboard a JCB bulldozer during a factory visit, at a time when that vehicle was being used for demolishing Muslim homes and shops around the country.
He certainly didn’t take himself seriously, which may at first have been refreshing to some, but it began to reflect badly on the Conservative Party.
Sajid Javid put it best in his resignation letter. “Conservatives at their best are seen as hard-headed decision-makers, guided by strong values. We may not have always been popular, but we have been competent in acting in the national interest. Sadly, in the current circumstances, the public are concluding that we are now neither,” he wrote.
For the past decade or so, Conservatives have dominated politics in the UK. But the likes of Johnson have hurt the party’s image. Whether this will have electoral consequences remains to be seen. There are some cynics who suggest that nowadays, British voters are so desensitised to a chaotic government that they can hardly resonate with one that promises to function with integrity. If this is true, it’s likely that Boris Johnson will just be replaced by another Boris Johnson.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)