The fall of Boris Johnson provides a good example of how fragile power is when it is based on celebrity status. His undoing, from winning a massive victory to getting kicked out of office in less than three years, was almost entirely of his own making.
Johnson has always been a decidedly unserious person. I do not mean that he is stupid. It is true that the wheels of his success were greased by him coming from a wealthy family that enabled him to attend prestigious schools and universities and have well-connected friends, the typical road to success of Conservative party leaders. But there is also evidence that he was also academically somewhat gifted, winning scholarships and honors.
He was also highly ambitious and wanted to be the center of attention and popular and he seems to have decided early on in life that the way to be so was to also act like a clown, to the extent of looking disheveled and deliberately messing up his hair before he went out in public. This lovable scamp act brought with it two benefits. It drew attention to himself. It also enabled him to avoid taking responsibility for his mistakes and deflect criticism by claiming ignorance and carelessness rather than deliberate dishonesty. And there was plenty of dishonesty to be hidden. Apart from his chronic lying, he was also utterly self-serving and treacherous in his dealings with others, perfectly willing to stab his erstwhile party colleagues in the back in his rise to power. It is also clear that he had almost no political principles, except for the standard issue conservative one of cutting taxes and regulations on businesses and undermining the social safety net.
His rise to the premiership was entirely based on lies. His Brexit campaign was primarily driven by the lie about the massive amount that the UK was purportedly sending every week to the EU that he promised would be spent on the NHS and his xenophobic implication that 80 million Turks were poised to enter the UK if the UK did not leave the EU. He also acted as if the problem of the Irish border in the wake of leaving the EU, which everyone knew would be a serious problem, could be managed. He used that to win the Brexit vote and then proceeded to undermine Theresa May as prime minister and after a protracted battle, become the party leader. He used the fact that he was entertaining to garner support and won a landslide victory of 80 sets in parliament as recently as December 2019 by lying that he had an ‘oven ready’ Brexit plan. Any halfway competent leader would have used that to cement his position in power and win a second, and possibly a third, term in office. And yet he was ousted a little more than halfway through his first term, a staggeringly rapid descent.
And it was all his own fault. His lack of seriousness and his entitlement mentality that expected others to cover up the consequences of his lack of responsibility to carry out his tasks were well known before his final downfall. His government’s poor response to the pandemic showed the damage his lack of seriousness could cause, with the UK having some of the worst metrics in the world. After his victory, he proceeded to be erratic in his dealings with the EU, unilaterally breaking treaties. The fact that the Conservative party voted him as its leader and went along with his lies and incompetence for so long makes the recent high-minded protestations of his former cabinet members that it was their sense of integrity that caused them to leave his government ring hollow.
As Jonathan Pie so accurately put it, ultimately it was his lying even about petty things that brought Johnson down. He lied about the source of the money to refurbish his home. He lied about the parties he attended during the lockdown. He lied about his knowledge of the sexual predator he promoted to high office in the party. He lied about Brexit. Johnson was breathtaking in the audacity of his lies, no doubt thinking that his lovable scamp act would would enable him to escape consequences once again. But it left him vulnerable to attack by his rivals for the premiership and by those whom he had scorned or discarded once they were of no use to him, like his one-time advisor Dominic Cummings and the many bureaucrats in the civil service who had had enough of him. Johnson was very Trumpian in his lies and the way he dealt with others.
To the end, Johnson had no shame. He said that he would remain as prime minister until the new party leader was chosen, a process that would take months. There were suspicions that he delayed his departure so that he could use the prime minister’s fancy country residence known as Chequers to hold his belated large wedding party on July 30th. After an outcry, he then had to change the venue.
Johnson used lying and clownish behavior to become popular and rise to power. It was fitting that it was those characteristics that also brought him down.
One of the unfortunate lessons of Trump is that a person who is unserious and decidedly unsuited to high office because of their lying and grifting and utter lack of integrity could still become president simply by exploiting their celebrity and entertainment value. Johnson has done a similar drastic lowering of expectations for the job of prime minister in the UK.