Boris Johnson Has Only Delayed the Inevitable

The prime minister’s political life once appeared to be a sweeping epic. Despite surviving a no-confidence motion, it risks being more of a tragic novella.

A drawing of Boris Johnson
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

Boris Johnson lives to fight another day. Britain, meanwhile, lives to endure another day in his shadow, a bit part in the soap opera of his life, watching on as the drama is set on an endless doom loop from comic farce to tragedy.

After months of turmoil over Johnson’s behavior in office, in which he became the first sitting British prime minister ever to be fined for breaking the law, enough of his fellow Conservative members of Parliament finally plucked up the courage to trigger a formal vote of confidence in his leadership of the party. Had he lost, even by a single vote, the process to replace him as party leader—and prime minister—would have begun immediately, culminating in a new appointment within weeks—the sixth British leader in the space of just 15 years, an astonishing period of political instability and failure. Yet, once again, this master of evasion somehow managed to escape, winning 211 votes to 148 to stay in post.

This “victory,” however, marks just the beginning of Johnson’s fight for survival. Each of his Tory predecessors who were challenged to a vote of confidence lost power soon after, many spectacularly. Even though each prevailed, for Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and Theresa May, the very fact of being challenged marked the beginning of the end.

The fundamental problem for Johnson is that he is now a populist who is no longer popular. This is no repeat of the Donald Trump impeachment drama, where the president might have been unpopular nationally but was protected by a wall of support from his base. In Britain, Johnson is opposed both in the country at large and among what should be the Tory grassroots. Appalled by revelations of drunken parties in 10 Downing Street during the COVID lockdowns, the country seems to have concluded that it will not vote for him again. And so long as the country feels this way, he is toast—or, if he isn’t, then the Conservative Party most certainly is.

For any prime minister, this is a deadly bind. It is especially so for Johnson, who was elevated to power not because Conservative parliamentarians ever particularly liked or respected him, let alone backed his political philosophy—if such a thing exists—but because they concluded that he was their only hope of saving the party from electoral oblivion. Johnson was the instrument necessary to “get Brexit done,” a phrase he repeated ad nauseam during the 2019 election campaign. Then, his character faults were less important than his political potential. Britain had voted to leave the European Union, but its political class had proved unable to fulfill this instruction, and so Johnson was given the power to enact the revolution the public demanded, overhauling the Conservative Party and the country in the process, and winning the biggest Tory majority in 30 years. At a stroke Johnson became the most radical and consequential prime minister since Thatcher and, it seemed, was destined to remain in office for as long. In 10 Downing Street soon after his election victory was confirmed, one of his aides told me that Johnson’s was a 10-year project—at least.

That was less than three years ago, but regardless of today’s survival, he seems perilously close to having thrown it all away. He now faces a monumental challenge to turn this around, his authority, popularity, and political purpose lying in tatters with few obvious ways to put it all back together. And for what? A few parties in 10 Downing Street that broke the lockdown rules that he himself introduced, albeit so reluctantly that his delay cost the lives of more Brits than it ever should, but for which he never paid a political price. The entire episode is so pathetic. The entire episode is so fitting.

The irony is that we now seem to be watching the tragic chronicle of Johnson’s political death foretold—not just by his fiercest critics, who long ago warned it would end this way, but by the prime minister himself.

Alone among the politicians I have covered, Johnson has seemed to so openly flash his own flaws at the public, almost daring them to join him on his journey of self-destruction. In his novel, Seventy Two Virgins, Johnson’s main character—essentially a caricature of himself—even speculates about politicians wanting to watch their demise. “There was something prurient about the way he wanted to read about his own destruction,” the protagonist says. “Just as there was something weird about the way he had been impelled down the course he had followed.” Why did Johnson write this, if not to tell us something about himself?

Johnson’s political life once appeared to be a sweeping epic, an unending rise to power that would ultimately reshape Britain and secure his place as one of the country’s most important postwar leaders. Instead, this episode—even though he has survived—makes clear that his time in office now risks being more of a tragic novella, unless he can find even more dramatic ways to escape the bind he has put himself in.

The past few days have encapsulated both Johnson and Britain, highlighting inner truths about both, illustrating their deepest flaws, ones that will not go away whatever Johnson’s fate.

Confirmation that Johnson would face a vote of confidence came as Britons returned to work with something of a groggy head after four days of celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. Some Conservative members of Parliament, it now appears, submitted letters of no confidence in Johnson before the festivities had drawn to a close, but postdated them to ensure that nothing sullied the royal occasion.

This little detail neatly sums up a moment in 21st-century Britain that was both bonkers and brilliant, joyful and ludicrous, unifying and absurd—an event that revealed something of the country’s spirit while providing a vent for it. This was a festival in which a giant drone display above Buckingham Palace beamed images of corgis and handbags to a cheering crowd of thousands while Diana Ross warbled away onstage, and where street parties up and down the country created a rare and uplifting sense of national unity—but one of the defining images of the weekend was the prime minister being booed as he walked up the steps to St. Paul’s Cathedral to attend a thanksgiving service in honor of the Queen.

Here was the extraordinary spectacle of a Conservative prime minister being jeered by a crowd of flag-waving monarchists. For some, the image was terminal for Johnson, proof he had lost the crowd. This fact remains, the elemental source of all of his problems that is not going away. Johnson has become a tribune of the people, without a people.

It is worth pausing to reflect that Johnson is far from unique in being loathed. In fact, he is just the latest British prime minister to be hated by the public with a vehemence that does not seem particularly healthy. Tony Blair remains a virtual pariah to this day, David Cameron a figure of open disdain, and Thatcher a source of such continuing hostility that a statue honoring her is egged by protesters. It is a strange quirk that Britain’s worst prime ministers are now its most popular: Major, May, and Gordon Brown. Yet, each was driven from office in a wave of public hatred, horribly warped and disfigured in the process.

Where Johnson somewhat differs from his predecessors is that he has always seemed so open and sanguine about his fate and, in a sense, his own smallness. “Politics is a constant repetition,” he once wrote. “How we make kings for our societies, and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth.” Politics is not about grand plans and ideologies in Johnson’s mind; it’s a cynical ritual used by societies to keep on some kind of even keel, a ceremony of hypocrisy in which everyone is able to feel better about themselves by raising and then slaying the avatars of their hopes and fears. Politics, like life, drifts in and out of cycles—not in a forward sweep. Problems remain; histories consume; leaders rise and fall.

The irony for Johnson is that this is now the fate he is battling to delay, while being fully aware that it will consume him in the end. Today, a sense of national unease and unhappiness, disunity and trouble hangs in the air alongside the very opposite feelings that were on display during the jubilee.

The Conservative Party is now trapped between those who have concluded that it needs to kill the king to achieve the requisite rebirth and those who think that it has not come to that yet. The risk for the party is that it achieves the worst of all worlds, leaving Britain to drift on in the doldrums, without a fair wind to propel it or a captain with the power to sail it.

The strange reality is that there is no real policy problem for Tory MPs at the core of this crisis. The ritual bloodletting we are going through once again is not being pursued in order to change anything other than the guy at the top. The music has stopped and Johnson is battling to stay perched on the throne, but little more than that.

Of course the personality here is important, particularly so with Johnson. As the prime minister’s fiercest critics have long warned, his character flaws are baked into who he is. What made him the popular choice for his party and the public in 2019 are the same flaws that make him so unpopular today: He is a mocking, disdainful observer of the serious and their codes of honor, someone who believes in the fleeting, cosmically tragic, and darkly comic reality of life—and the power of Boris to rise above the rest, to poke his nose out of the celestial cloud even for a millisecond in the grand sweep of time. This makes him formidable and careless, historically-minded and shortsighted, endlessly jovial but melancholy, useful for smashing through old orders, but less good at imposing new ones.

Still, should Johnson lose this battle to survive over the coming weeks or months, the fundamental problems that Britain faces will remain. It is true that character matters. The simple fact of Johnson remaining in power makes some diplomatic relationships in Europe harder to fix. Perhaps the country will be able to move on from Brexit only once all those associated with the campaign are gone too. Still, the candidates to replace him will almost certainly promise to maintain all of the major planks of his agenda. Indeed, some already have. Each will pledge to remain outside the EU and its economic zone; to stay hawkish in their support for Ukraine; and to revisit the Northern Ireland protocol that is the rot underlying Britain’s troubled relationship with Europe. Each will promise to pursue new trade deals with countries around the world rather than prioritize one with the EU, to make the economy more competitive. Each will insist that they rebalance the economy to make northern England wealthier and to protect the “red wall” seats that Johnson won off Labour in 2019. The reality is that if Johnson goes, Johnsonism will survive in large part until the Labour Party manages to win an election. And even then, if Labour wins power under Keir Starmer, Brexit itself will not be reversed.

But just as much as Johnsonism will remain independent of Johnson, so too will all the problems that Johnsonism either was elected to address—and has failed to—or has actively exacerbated, and in some senses even created. Britain’s long-term competitive decline continues, as does the shame of its internal border between Britain and Northern Ireland, and the appallingly uneven frontier now operating with France. The forces of nationalism pulling the country apart are not going away, a reality no party seems able to address in any serious fashion, while the endemic north-south divide that Johnson promised to resolve looks set only to get worse. And of course, there is still Brexit.

Britain today is a country where religion has been replaced with a kind of state Shintoism in which the monarch is raised in exaltation while her chief ministers are ritually sacrificed to cleanse the nation of its sins. And all the while, nothing ever really changes. Deep-seated problems go unaddressed, left to fester, passed from one prime minister to the next, none of whom seems capable of even seeing the scale of the challenges they face, let alone addressing them. Johnson is just the latest prime minister to fail spectacularly at the job, though in his case, in uniquely grubby circumstances. He won’t be the last.