Here Lies Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson’s dishonesty finally led to his downfall.

A Joker-style playing card featuring Boris Johnson's face and labeled 'Johnson'
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Helen Lewis is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Watching someone take the slow train to an obvious conclusion is always frustrating. Yesterday afternoon, the Conservative politician Sajid Javid stood up in the British Parliament to criticize his party leader, Boris Johnson, for being careless with the truth. “It’s not fair on my ministerial colleagues to go out every morning defending lines that don’t stand up, or don’t hold up,” he said. “At some point we have to conclude that enough is enough. I believe that point is now.”

Johnson took a little longer to acknowledge that reality, but this morning he quit as Conservative leader. He hopes to stay on as prime minister during the contest to replace him, before an official handover in the fall.

Over the past few days, I’ve watched Americans boggle that this is the British system for removing a failing leader—an alchemical mixture of shame, extortion, threats, peer pressure, ambition, and morality, of secret letters and whispered conversations. Just three years ago Johnson resoundingly won a general election, but that doesn’t matter. He cannot govern without the confidence of his party. As he said himself in his statement, “Them’s the breaks.” (For a politician who idolizes William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, his speech was notably light on soaring oratory.) His own flaws ended his career—flaws that had been obvious to outsiders for years, but that his own party has largely ignored until now.

There is a certain irony in Boris Johnson—repeat adulterer, father of an indeterminate number of children—being brought down by someone else’s sexual misconduct. Last Wednesday night, a minor Conservative politician named Christopher Pincher resigned. Pincher was a whip—a post responsible for party discipline and pastoral care, and therefore the person a junior politician is supposed to go to if personal difficulties prevent them from carrying out their job. Why was Pincher forced out? He got drunk in front of several colleagues at a private club for right-wing politicians and inappropriately touched two men. When this news broke last week, it opened the door to a dozen more allegations of similar behavior, dating back two decades. In 2019, a group of civil servants had even complained about Pincher to their department, prompting an investigation that upheld the accusation, and forcing him to apologize.

Yet Boris Johnson claimed not to have known about any of these accusations when he appointed Pincher to the party post in February of this year, and his loyal ministers were sent out on television and radio to make that case. Unfortunately for them, and for him, that line was soon contradicted by a senior retired bureaucrat, who went public to call Johnson a liar in the most politely British way possible. The prime minister’s claims were “inaccurate,” wrote Simon McDonald, adding: “Mr Pincher deceived me and others in 2019. He cannot be allowed to use the confidentiality of the process three years ago to pursue his predatory behavior in other contexts.”

The death blow came when it was revealed that Johnson had not only known about the allegations, but had responded to them in the most Johnsonian way possible: “Pincher by name, pincher by nature,” he had reportedly said. Asked by the BBC to deny making the remark, he instead went silent. And in any case, every single voter who heard about the comment must have thought: Well, it certainly sounds like something he would have said. Live by the off-color joke, die by the off-color joke.

The Pincher saga then prompted Javid’s resignation as health secretary on Tuesday, along with that of Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer—two prominent senior figures in the government, both of whom are also possible contenders for the post of prime minister. Yesterday, two dozen junior members of the government followed suit. Some of the resignation letters spoke of Johnson’s lack of a plan to rescue the British economy from slow growth and high inflation. Others criticized his failure to achieve his policy goals, or his stance on LGBTQ issues. But the main subtext of most of the letters was simple: We defended you, and in return you’ve made us look like idiots.

Eventually, what brought Johnson down was arithmetic. His team could simply not find enough warm bodies to fill all the roles vacated by deserters. The steady trickle of resignations, interspersed with Johnson’s defiant public appearances, made his final 24 hours as prime minister feel like a real-time reenactment of Armando Iannucci’s black comedy The Death of Stalin—in which supposedly loyal ministers awkwardly bide their time until they’re sure the strongman has expired. One former Johnson colleague likened the prime minister’s extended downfall to the drawn-out assassination of Rasputin. Even his departure speech omitted the words I resign, prompting speculation that he might still think he can cling to power somehow.

That seems utterly implausible, yet psychologically in keeping with Johnson’s behavior so far. He refused to leave office even after a delegation of his remaining ministers told him to his face last night that he had to go. Instead, he settled one last score by firing Michael Gove, his long-standing frenemy and the man whose spectacular last-minute betrayal brought down Johnson’s first bid for Tory leader in 2016. To fire Gove, when so many other ministers had resigned already, was pointless and petty—but presumably also deeply, deeply cathartic. It was the act of a paranoid ruler who senses that his time is up, and it was the first suggestion all day that Johnson had made contact with reality. Earlier, he had displayed the deluded self-assurance of a Roman emperor. Perhaps he’d even contemplated making his favorite horse a minister.

As I said, though, this was a long road to an inevitable end point. For years, Johnson has been making his aides and supporters look stupid by sending them out to peddle lines that turn out to be untrue. Back in July 2019—that last blessed pre-pandemic summer—Johnson was the favorite to win the Conservative Party leadership election, and thus to become Britain’s next prime minister, and I had just joined a magazine you might have heard of called The Atlantic. My second-ever Atlantic article explored an arresting modern phenomenon: the political outriders forced to humiliate themselves on behalf of charismatic, chaotic leaders. Think of all the Republicans who thought that, surely, Donald Trump wouldn’t lie to them. Here in Britain, the most obvious example was a politician named Matt Hancock, who cheerfully immolated all of his previous convictions in various television appearances to win a place in Johnson’s cabinet. (He proceeded to lose that place for kissing an adviser in his office during lockdown, and has now reinvented himself as a turtleneck-wearing crypto bro.)

These contortions could be attributed to “Johnson’s own vagueness and hatred of commitment,” as I wrote at the time. But there was a shorter word for the problem. Boris Johnson lies. This is not a new phenomenon: In his 20s, he was sacked from a newspaper job for making up a quotation from a source, and at age 40, he was sacked from the shadow cabinet for lying to the party’s leader, and to journalists, about having an affair. The pattern continued when he was prime minister: In December 2021, he repeatedly insisted that there had been no lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street; six months later, he was fined by the police for having attended one.

Does Johnson’s lying reflect some underlying pathology, or is it simply cowardice? Does he just tell people whatever it takes to get them off his back? Regardless, the wonder of his career is less that he lied so much than that he rebounded every time. He got away with it for so long with the help of three types of people. The first includes those who would have struggled to become minister of paper clips in another administration but got top jobs in Johnson’s. The opposition leader Keir Starmer memorably described them yesterday as the “Charge of the Lightweight Brigade.”

The second group consists of those who knew who Johnson was and what he was but gambled that he could give them what they wanted. The most obvious exponent of that view is Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings. He wanted to “get Brexit done” after three years of tortuous negotiations by Theresa May, and in Johnson he saw a candidate willing to break with legal norms to do so. Cummings got what he wanted—Britain left the European Union in January 2021—but doesn’t seem very happy about it. He was sacked after falling out with Johnson’s wife, Carrie, and his days are now spent tweeting about the man he calls “the trolley”—meaning a shopping cart, specifically one with a wonky wheel—and leaking stories about Johnson’s various transgressions. Many of Johnson’s former supporters fall into this group: They needed him to deliver Brexit, but any old chump can bluster about “leveling up” the regions outside London and fail to tackle the energy crisis, which is what he was reduced to. Johnson himself cited the war in Ukraine as a reason to keep him in office; one running joke was that every time things got bad, he would either have another baby or call Volodymyr Zelensky for a pep talk.

A more recent example of the cynical Johnson supporter is the new chancellor of the exchequer, Nadhim Zahawi. When it looked as though the government might collapse after Javid and Sunak resigned, Zahawi—then the education minister—went to Downing Street and successfully argued to be given responsibility for the British economy in return for his continued support. Tying his reputation to Johnson’s at that moment was a high-stakes gamble. However, he did exactly what you would do as a 55-year-old man if you believed that Johnson could hang on for a while, that the Conservatives would lose the next election, and that you would be seen as past your prime by the time they regained power. His gamble was a failure: Zahawi barely had time to update his Twitter bio before he sensed that the decline was terminal, and he soon sent a letter calling for Johnson to quit. That letter also served as the opening salvo of his own leadership bid, as he tried to recast his ambitious negotiation for a better job as an act of selfless service to the nation.

The final group that enabled Johnson to survive so long were the supporters who let themselves be fooled, who seemed genuinely let down when they discovered that he lied to them and not just to everyone else. These people remind me of a viral tweet from 2015: “‘I never thought leopards would eat MY face,’ sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party.” Javid appears to have fallen into this last category, arriving at the obvious conclusion long after the available evidence should have taken him there.

Desperation. Cynicism. Naivete. All of these led us to the day that Christopher Pincher resigned and Johnson did what he always does—he lied to make his life easier. Only this time, he didn’t get away with it.