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The Rise and Fall of Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson's official portrait as Prime Minister, taken by Ben Shread, 2019.

Roar writer Arjan Arenas reflects on Boris Johnson’s rise to power and his subsequent downfall as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party.

On a tense morning last Thursday broke the news many were hoping for but some (myself included) weren’t expecting so soon: Boris Johnson resigned as Prime Minister. Well, sort of. He confirmed that he was technically resigning as leader of the Conservative Party but would remain in post as Prime Minister in a caretaker capacity until October. A timetable of the process of appointing Johnson’s successor is scheduled to be released this coming week, yet no sooner had he confirmed that he was stepping down than feverish media speculation over who is the most likely candidate to replace him began, with several senior Tory MPs having already thrown their hats in the ring.

“To you, the British public”, Johnson said in his resignation speech, “I know there will be many people who are relieved and perhaps quite a few who will also be disappointed. And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world. But them’s the breaks.” It was an uncharacteristically frank admission from a politician well known for his rhetorical flair – the style which his numerous detractors maintain fails spectacularly to compensate for Johnson’s objectionable substance, or lack thereof.

Johnson’s resignation will bring to an end one of the most chaotic tenures of any British prime minister in recent memory, which is saying something considering that he is now the third consecutive Tory prime minister to resign. It also heralds the climax of Johnson’s own chequered political career, over which he has sharply divided opinion. He won appeal for what his fans see as his wit, sense of humour, and general entertainment value (that incident on the zip wire during the London Olympics, anyone?), and his political supporters once hailed him as “the Heineken Tory”, who could reach the parts of the electorate which other Conservatives could not. On the other hand, his detractors – of whom there’s never been any shortage – have accused him of elitism, bigotry, cronyism, and repeated dishonesty. The last two accusations have become especially pertinent during time as Prime Minister, and played a prominent role in his downfall.

Ever since he was a boy whose earliest ambition was to be “world king”, the rise of Boris Johnson has been a fascinating story of a man who seemed to relentlessly coast by on a combination of bluster and sheer luck – luck which appears to have only just run out. Born into wealth and privilege and educated at Eton and Oxford, he first came to prominence as a journalist, initially working at The Times (a job he gained through family connections, unsurprisingly) until he was sacked for fabricating a quote for an article.

Johnson went on to The Daily Telegraph, where he honed his distinctive rhetorical style, and made an impact throughout the early 1990s as the paper’s vocally Eurosceptic Brussels correspondent. He gained notoriety for his articles propagating humorously outlandish falsehoods concerning the actions of the European Commission, memorably including stories that Eurocrats were planning to ban prawn cocktail crisps in the UK and standardise condom sizes because Italians had smaller penises, as well as that Euro notes caused erectile dysfunction (no, really). As completely baseless as these articles were, the images they evoked of the rampant bureaucratic overreach of a decadent European Union were an important forerunner to Johnson’s crucial role in the Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum.

After rising to become assistant editor and chief political correspondent of The Telegraph and gaining a regular column in The Spectator – writing ostensibly tongue-in-cheek articles which were accused of racism, homophobia, and classism – Johnson appeared on the BBC panel show Have I Got News for You in 1998, bringing him to wider public attention as a figure of fun. He quickly capitalised on this politically; in 2001, he was elected MP for the Tory safe seat of Henley.

In 2008, Johnson began his 8-year stint as Mayor of London, probably the most successful period of his political career. While his promotion of the aborted Garden Bridge project is highlighted as one of the failures of his mayoralty, he enjoyed numerous successes, including the cycle hire scheme, introducing the New Routemaster buses, and overseeing the Olympics in 2012 (again, that zipwire). However, in 2016, he declined a third term as Mayor, aspiring to higher office.

Having returned to parliament as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, another Tory safe seat, Johnson played a prominent role in the ultimately successful Leave campaign in the referendum on British membership of the EU. In true Johnson style, he apparently took this position after having written two separate Telegraph columns, one backing Leave and the other Remain, and running with the former. After the referendum, Theresa May became Prime Minister following David Cameron’s resignation, and Johnson was appointed Foreign Secretary. In this capacity, he continued to court controversy, before very publicly resigning in 2018 in protest against May’s Brexit strategy. In 2019, when May announced her resignation, Johnson quickly announced his candidacy for the Tory leadership and as Prime Minister, and won the contest by a landslide. Finally, he had achieved his long-held, badly-concealed ambition to gain the top job.

Despite a promising start to his premiership, winning the 2019 general election with the biggest majority for the Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher’s final victory in 1987, Johnson yet again became embroiled in controversy. He re-opened Brexit negotiations and controversially prorogued Parliament, a decision the Supreme Court quickly ruled to be unlawful. He then agreed to a revised Brexit withdrawal agreement with the EU, which replaced the Irish backstop with a new Northern Ireland Protocol, but failed to win parliamentary support for the agreement, prompting the 2019 election.

The defining issue of Johnson’s time as Prime Minister has been the Covid-19 pandemic, to which his government responded with various emergency powers, introduced measures across society to mitigate its impact, and approved the rollout of a nationwide vaccination programme. As much as his supporters have touted this response as a success on Johnson’s part, he became the focus of the now infamous “Partygate” affair and received a fixed penalty notice for breaching lockdown rules, gaining the unfortunate distinction of the first British prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law while in office. The publication of the Sue Gray report – which confirmed numerous other breaches of the rules by the government – and a widespread sense of dissatisfaction led to a no-confidence vote in Johnson among Conservative MPs last month, which he only narrowly survived. This month, revelations over his hiring of Chris Pincher – whom Johnson knew to have been accused of repeated incidents of sexual misconduct – as Deputy Chief Whip led to a mass resignation of members of the government, and it was because of this that Johnson was finally brought down.

So Boris Johnson may have ultimately achieved his ambition to become Prime Minister, but – as the old saying goes – at what cost, to both his reputation and, more importantly, the country? It might be too early to tell yet, but right now, he seems set to be remembered not for the rare success of the vaccine rollout, but for the multiple errors made by his government, not all of which can be blamed on the pressures of the pandemic. His landslide election victory based on his promise to deliver Brexit may have been promising, but in the end, Johnson’s abiding legacy seems to be his relentless pursuit of power, followed by his desperate clinging to it as Prime Minister before his position finally became untenable. Them’s the breaks, indeed.

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