The Worst, Best Prime Minister
Boris Johnson achieved almost nothing except for one very big thing: Brexit.
And just like that, he was gone. Well, ish. Boris Johnson finally gave up this morning and announced that he is quitting as prime minister following a tsunami of resignations from within his own government that have made his position untenable. “When the herd moves, it moves,” he said today outside 10 Downing Street. The “brilliant Darwinian system” of British politics, as he called it, had got him in the end. He will stay on until the Conservative Party has picked a new leader, who will then become Britain’s prime minister.
The events of the past 24 hours are a sordid and quite extraordinary almost-end to a sordid and quite extraordinary career, one that was profoundly inane in one respect and incontestably historic in another. He is perhaps the worst prime minister in modern British history but also the most consequential, leaving a legacy without an -ism or a following, but one that will outlast anything bequeathed by his recent predecessors.
In the few short years since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Johnson came, saw, conquered, and then collapsed in a heap of indignity—just as he seems to have always suspected he would. Johnson once wrote of the lead character in his novel, Seventy-Two Virgins, a comedic farce essentially about himself: “What a prat he’d been … He’d bungled it. He’d bogged it up. He could have been a hero. Now he had been proved right.” Proved right about what, exactly? That something like this was always going to happen.
That’s the thing with Johnson: He always seems to have known. “There was something weird about the way he had been impelled down the course he had followed,” he wrote. Well, quite.
A phenomenon known as the Phaeton complex seems to afflict many leading politicians who have suffered some childhood trauma. (In Johnson’s case, his mother experienced a mental breakdown when he was 10, and she had to be confined in London, away from the family in Brussels. This was when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was packed off to boarding school in England and became Boris.) The complex derives its name from the wayward son of the sun god in Greek mythology who persuaded his father to let him take the reins of the sun chariot’s fiery horses but then lost control, scorching the earth. In psychological terms, a person with the condition has a paradoxical yearning to flirt with danger in order to test whether he is as inadequate as he fears he is and to prove wrong anyone who thinks he really is inadequate. Think Bill Clinton. In her 1970 study of British prime ministers, the writer Lucille Iremonger defined the Phaeton complex as “the desire to possess everything in order the better to convince oneself that one has nothing.” Well, Johnson certainly had everything—and now he has nothing.
When I last saw Johnson, at 10 Downing Street in May, I asked him about this recurring premonition of disaster. The Brexit revolution, I pointed out, came with enormous risks. Why was he so sure everything would be fine? His novel suggested otherwise, I began to say before he interjected:
“Oh, the only one I’ve written.”
Yes, that one.
“The novel turns out all right, doesn’t it?”
Yes, I replied, before telling him that his lead character, as he writes, does have a death wish of sorts.
“Does he?” Johnson said. “Isn’t he called Cameron? No, that’s the girl. I can’t remember what happens.”
Johnson’s claim that he’d forgotten was as ridiculous as it was unbelievable. The truth is that he just couldn’t resist the joke that the character with the death wish was called Cameron—as in David, his old university friend and the prime minister whose career he helped end, before proceeding to finish off the next prime minister, Theresa May. Johnson has a dark, cynical view of human life, which is only partially covered by the jokes.
The endless jokes. The problem is that, finally, Britons felt the joke was on them. And they were right.
When I pressed him about the not-very-hidden message in his book, Johnson sidestepped again. “I tell you what I think about that novel,” he said. “I always feel slightly depressed … Have you seen the film Four Lions? It’s basically the same idea.” In Four Lions, a group of absurd British Asian friends from Yorkshire try to become suicide bombers but are defeated in grimly ironic ways.
“It all falls apart in comedy circumstances at the end,” I noted.
“It does, yeah,” Johnson replied.
In one sense, then, Johnson’s departure leaves little trace of his brief hegemony over British politics. There will be very few Johnsonites in the Conservative Party to honor his legacy and call for a return to Johnsonite principles, as happened with Margaret Thatcher. Johnsonism, if it ever existed, will disperse into the political wind almost as quickly as his own premiership over the past six months.
One reason for this is that, Brexit aside, Johnson is no radical. Unlike Thatcher, he does not want to slash the size of the state. Nor does he want to expand it. He wants no revolution either in social attitudes or in Britain’s foreign policy. His main policy agenda is to “unite and level up” the country, but this is uncontroversial. The best one can say is that his success brought the issue of regional disparities more into the center of British politics.
“Economics is the method,” Thatcher declared. “The object is to change the soul.” Even passionate detractors had to concede that she had succeeded in this over her 11 years in power. She had not only reformed the economy but altered the way the nation saw itself. Even after Tony Blair took power, in 1997, and gradually restored the size of the state, her legacy remained secure. Such was her influence that Blair, and every prime minister since, has felt obliged to mimic Thatcher’s iron will, especially toward Europe. Even in Johnson’s final appearance in Parliament as prime minister this week, he was bleating about the power of “union barons”—almost 40 years after Thatcher destroyed their power.
Johnson leaves no such legacy—though some will say that he has done irreparable damage to the British body politic by breaking conventions that tie together Britain’s unwritten constitution. I’m not convinced by this argument. Johnson had an 80-seat majority in Parliament, with demographic trends that meant he should have held power for a decade, yet he has been forced from office. The system remains pretty formidable: The press revealed his bad behavior, the public decided he was not fit for office, and enough Conservative members of Parliament either agreed with the public or felt that it was in their interest to remove him. The spectacle that ensued this week was unseemly and chaotic. But it was no January 6.
And yet, Johnson leaves one legacy more consequential and long-lasting even than Thatcher’s: the Brexit revolution. Johnson led the campaign for it, helped block Theresa May’s attempted “soft exit,” and then negotiated a much harder alternative—and won a decisive electoral mandate to enact it. In doing so, he permanently transformed Britain—not perhaps its soul, but its place in the world, its sense of itself, and its future. Britain is in a weaker position today than it has been in decades, and much of this is because of Johnson. To be fair, it was in a weakened position when he took over: divided, stuck, unable to leave the European Union as the referendum demanded. His one major achievement was to enact the result of that poll, an important moment for British democracy, whatever its costs.
Within about six months of becoming prime minister, Johnson completely undid the complex, imperfect, and specifically British version of EU membership that had taken 50 years to construct. Whether Johnson was right to argue for Brexit, ever believed in it at all, or used it only for personal advancement is beside the point. In place of that membership, he negotiated a thin trade agreement with the EU and an internal trade border within the United Kingdom itself. This settlement is now part of international law, and is cemented in domestic politics by the Labour Party’s confirmation that it would not challenge its fundamental tenet. If a future government proposed to take Britain back into the EU, it would have to do so from a position of weakness; no status quo ante is available.
Johnson has not changed the soul of the nation, but he has left a scar that will endure. His successor will now have to see whether the Johnsonian whirligig was all worth it. Johnson lost control because of a series of idiotic failings and misjudgments summed up by that most tawdry and bafflingly pitiful scandal, Partygate, when he became the first prime minister in history to be fined for breaking the law, by attending his own birthday party.
“In the great scheme of things his extermination was about as important as the accidental squashing of a snail,” Johnson wrote in his novel. “The trouble was that until that happy day when he was reincarnated as a louse or a baked bean, he didn’t know how he was going to explain the idiotic behavior of his brief human avatar.” Explaining it is still hard, to be honest.