Boris Johnson Keeps Defying Gravity

The British prime minister continually survives the chaos of his choices—much to pundits’ chagrin. How?

An illustration of Boris Johnson set against a chart showing a descending line
Getty / The Atlantic

“I am a juggler,” Boris Johnson declared nearly two decades ago. “I can have it all!” This, more than anything, is the essence of the man. To lead is to make choices—among different priorities, factions, paths forward—but Boris Johnson refuses to choose. Ask those close to him to describe his philosophy and they reply with “cakeism,” in that he wants to have it, and to eat it. This might be an insult from others, but is a badge of pride for Johnson.

Yet the most confounding thing about him—the thing that really winds people up—is not that he demands everything; it’s that he either gets everything, or seems to avoid the consequences that might come for others when the juggling act finally crashes to the floor. “I don’t know when I really started hating Boris Johnson,” one journalist wrote in The Times of London as far back as 2004. But he knew why. “I hate him because he’s been built up and not yet knocked down. He has defied the usual laws of gravity.”

Throughout Johnson’s career, he has ignored the usual rules that apply and has largely gotten away with it. He is, after all, prime minister, with an 80-seat majority in Parliament—after being fired as a journalist for lying, being fired as a Conservative spokesman for lying, quitting the Conservative Party leadership race before winning it three years later, resigning as foreign secretary, being found guilty of unlawfully shutting down Parliament, and finally, striking a deal with Brussels that he now says is a threat to the United Kingdom.

Pundits continually predict that the laws of political gravity will kick in for Johnson, that this is the time he has finally been found out. And so, here we are again. As Johnson geared up for the annual Conservative Party conference—his second as Conservative leader and prime minister—the rumor mill began to churn anew: Johnson is on the wane, we hear; the jokes just aren’t funny anymore, they say. This time it really is different, his critics contend—forget Brexit, or the proroguing of Parliament, or all that has come before. Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has exposed his failings in a way that nothing else quite has. Britain’s COVID-19 death count is just too high. Johnson himself felt obliged to address these concerns in his set-piece conference speech today, dismissing as “nonsense” speculation that his hospitalization with the disease had robbed him of his mojo and insisted that weaknesses in Britain’s response to the pandemic had revealed long-term problems in the health of the country, rather than his government.

[Read: How the pandemic revealed Britain’s national illness]

These reports of Johnson’s waning powers are not without basis. Accounts of Conservative Party unrest have been dripping into Britain’s newspapers for weeks as the coronavirus grinds its way through the country. One recent poll of party members found that satisfaction with Johnson’s handling of the pandemic had plummeted to 28 percent, from 92 percent in March. The prime minister is variously accused of failing to articulate a clear message about Britain’s response; bungling the country’s handling of the first wave; panicking now that the second is approaching; issuing a series of contradictory diktats, while also losing his essential optimism that saw him triumph at last year’s general election. Johnson was even subjected to prime-time mocking on The Great British Bake Off (or The Great British Baking Show in the U.S.)—not typically a place for anything but gentle humor and double entendres about soggy bottoms and various things rising—indicating a problem that has spread beyond day-to-day politics.

In a BBC interview at the start of the Conservative Party conference on Sunday, Johnson was pressed on his fitness for office. “A lot of people are asking this question,” the interviewer, Andrew Marr, declared. “Inside your party they say the Boris Johnson of autumn 2020 just isn’t up to it.”

This statement-cum-question homed in on the two central, and in some senses competing, charges that are being levied at the prime minister. The first is that he has changed in office, losing the attributes that made him popular before the pandemic, when he rallied the country to his cause with a can-do spirit and a promise to “get Brexit done.” The second is the opposite: that he has not changed in office, that the attributes he is displaying today are the same ones he has always had. This is the more familiar accusation, that he is still trying to have it all.

Both are serious. On the first, it is beyond question that Johnson has been through an extraordinarily challenging period in his—or, really, anyone’s—life. Within the past two years, he has divorced his wife, moved in with his girlfriend, had a baby, and almost died. All the while, he helped bring down a prime minister, became one himself, renegotiated Brexit, won a general election, and then saw the country hit by the coronavirus. He has driven the ship of state close to the rocks, shutting down Parliament, threatening a no-deal divorce with Brussels, and introducing legislation that his own government admits would break international law. Is Johnson simply wrung out?

He insists not. “I think the reality is that this is a government that’s facing an unprecedented crisis,” he responded on the BBC. “And I think that if people wanted me to approach it with the sort of buoyancy and élan and all the other qualities that I normally bring to things, I think people would think that was totally inappropriate.” He added that this restraint would not last forever: “As soon as we have done what is necessary … then you will see this country and this government really accelerating our progress.”

Another question is being asked by some of those sympathetic to Johnson but concerned for him: Who is looking out for him? Johnson is the only prime minister I can think of who does not have an “ism,” or a faction of “ites” to lean on. He has not emerged from one wing of the party or another. He has few members of Parliament with whom he is close, and few aides, allies, or officials around him whose principal loyalty is to him, the way his predecessors had. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s most influential aide, is his own man with his own priorities; his head of policy, Munira Mirza, hails from the radical left; and his foreign-policy adviser, John Bew, is an academic and the biographer of the great Labour leader Clement Attlee.

It is easy, then, to portray Johnson as a political loner, one whose house of cards will inevitably come falling down because no one—not even those within his party—will come to his aid when he needs it, someone whose time as prime minister is running out.

Here is where a first warning sign should be placed on the slippery floor of Boris Johnson forecasting: Johnson does not have the same kind of following as those who came before him, precisely because he is different from them. Johnson’s authority comes from the fact that the Conservative Party came to him to save it from electoral oblivion for not delivering Brexit (even though he was the principal cause of the crisis in the first place). Johnson did not bend to the Conservative Party; it bent to him.

[Read: Boris Johnson meets his destiny]

In fact, a reasonable case can be made that everything most people think they know about Johnson is wrong. He is a public extrovert, but a private introvert; he shines, but is also prone to spells of detached inertia; he leads a chaotic, selfish, and occasionally hurtful life, but is rarely considered mendacious or nasty, and is often forgiven, even by those he has treated poorly. He is a populist, but not of the angry Trumpian variety; a celebrity who rarely watches TV; a romantic escapist wrapped up in tales of antiquarian heroism; a conservative pragmatist who prefers instinct to any kind of political “ism.”

Marr’s second charge against Johnson is essentially unchanged from years past: Tory members of Parliament have had enough of him, and his buffoonery is no longer working. Boil it down and the accusation is that he’s still trying to have his cake and eat it too; he still wants to be popular with the country—comical, bumbling, free—but also wants the country to do what he says so that it can get past the pandemic and he can bring back his “élan.” In other words, his central problem as prime minister is the central problem of his character, his belief that he is the juggler who can have it all.

Again, this risks underestimating Johnson’s appeal. He believes he can have it all in large part because he always has; he believes he can win without compromising his essential character, because that’s what has always happened; and he believes the Tories will continue to bend to him, because that’s always been the way. His other great lesson is that he will eventually be forgiven, because he always has been. Johnson has made mistake after mistake throughout his life, but none has stopped his rise. Those who know him well whom I spoke with for this piece say this is because he has an extraordinary ability to be given extra leeway, because Boris is Boris. It’s back to the usual laws of gravity not applying.

At one moment in the early 2000s, when Johnson’s private life was in particular turmoil, a friend—the journalist Sarah Sands—sent him a poem, “The Mistake,” detailing the consequence of choices gone wrong. “Each mistake leads back to something worse,” the poem laments, until all that's left is dismay.

And this dismay at this, this big mistake

Is made worse by the sight of all those who

Knew all along where these mistakes would lead—

Those frozen friends who watched the crisis break.

The poem was meant as a friendly warning, Sands told Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson. She had always tried to save Johnson from himself. “My message to him was that he was risking what was important by not choosing.”

In his Marr interview over the weekend, Johnson was again refusing to choose, this time between the economic catastrophe of another coronavirus lockdown and the public-health catastrophe of a second wave. “I think the best thing we can do now for all those who have suffered in the course of this pandemic is to bring it to an end in the speediest possible way, whilst trying to keep our society going,” he said. “And what we want people to do is to behave fearlessly, but with common sense. Fearlessly, but with common sense.” Johnson was juggling, refusing to accept that the country could not have both in moderation.

Gimson has written that Johnson’s instinctive belief in his ability to defy the usual norms invites vitriol from his critics because it is “an affront to serious-minded people’s idea of how politics should be conducted.” This doesn’t mean Johnson’s critics are wrong to hate him or to conclude that he is an irretrievably unsuitable man to run the country in a pandemic, or any other time. Nor, in fact, does it mean Johnson’s critics are wrong to say the prime minister will eventually drop the ball and be blamed for it by the country at large. There will come a time when the predictions of Johnson’s demise will come true—because all political careers end in failure.

The point though, as Gimson writes, is that in their anger, Johnson’s critics consistently underestimate one of the reasons for his appeal—that he is different: “By refusing to adopt their solemn tone, [Johnson] implies that they are ridiculous, and the dreadful thing, from their point of view, is that a large part of the British public agrees with Boris.”