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The Shameless Boris Johnson

The prime minister couldn’t even resign with grace.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing his resignation outside 10 Downing Street
Johnson announcing his resignation. (Dan Kitwood / Getty)

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Boris Johnson, like so many other populist charlatans, is a symbol of how much has changed in modern politics—for the worse.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


No Profumo

Over the past few days, watching the final meltdown of Boris Johnson’s career, I have been thinking about John Profumo.

Who, you say? Exactly my point.

In 1963, “Jack” Profumo was the U.K. secretary of state for war. He was also a married man in his late 40s who had recently had an affair with a 19-year-old woman named Christine Keeler—who was also, as it was once delicately described, a “call-girl.” This would have been bad enough, but it turns out that Keeler was also canoodling with the senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. (You might have seen the 1989 movie Scandal at some point, which was a dramatization of this whole mess.) And then, to compound all his other sins, Profumo tried to lie when he was caught by the British tabloids.

Profumo resigned in disgrace. But that’s not why I’m thinking about him these days. Rather, I am wistful about what Profumo did next.

After he left government, Profumo made a choice that in 2022 might be unthinkable for today’s generation of political opportunists: He left the public eye, repaired his marriage, and spent the rest of his days doing charitable work for the poor. Twelve years after his resignation, he was invited to Buckingham Palace and honored by the Queen for his charity work. He continued to live a quiet life and died in 2006.

Profumo was the model of a man who committed a terrible error, resigned, and made amends as a good citizen for the rest of his life.

Which brings us, of course, to Boris Johnson, who refused to budge in the face of multiple mistakes and scandals. Finally, after the exodus of dozens of his ministers and appointees, Johnson called it a day. His resignation speech checked the right boxes (he promised to remain as a caretaker and then help his successor), but like so much else in his career, and like the man himself, his announcement was graceless and self-centered.

He complained about his colleagues, attributing his downfall not to his mistakes and lapses in judgment, but to a kind of mindless panic: “The herd instinct is powerful and when the herd moves, it moves.” He bloviated about his own perspicacity, and added that he was confident that Britain’s “brilliant and Darwinian system” would replace him, as if “Darwinian” were a compliment.

Johnson also took a victory lap for finalizing Brexit. This is immensely cynical, because until power was within his reach, Johnson ridiculed Brexit. As she recounted in her indispensable book Twilight of Democracy, my Atlantic colleague Anne Applebaum was at a dinner with Johnson only a few years before the 2016 Brexit referendum when he scoffed at the whole idea. “Nobody serious wants to leave the EU,” he said. “It won’t happen.”

In a way, Johnson was right. No serious person wanted to follow through on a single referendum that won in a 52–48 decision, and so the Tories gave the job to one of the least serious people among them. And when all was lost, Johnson still tried to hang on—one Twitter user compared it to the Titanic refusing to admit the iceberg won—raising the possibility that the Queen herself might be dragged into a parliamentary crisis.

As Applebaum noted in her book, Johnson might be a narcissist, but he is also immensely lazy. In the end, he caved to the pressure to resign. (He still, apparently, plans to have a big wedding bash at Chequers.)

This is how much things have changed. John Profumo resigned and dedicated his life to good works. Johnson resigned and is throwing himself a wedding party before he goes.

The parallels with another narcissistic charlatan, Donald Trump, are obvious here, but Johnson and his clownish reign are a symbol of the rise of populist chicanery around the world. Johnson, along with Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, and many others, is one of the many wealthy populists who gained power by supercharging a sense of resentment among ordinary people. This is the great danger to democracy in the 21st century, and it is the work of men and women who have no sense of decency or duty.

Good riddance to Boris Johnson—but he is only one of many of his kind.

Related:

Read all of our Boris Johnson coverage here.


Today’s News
  1. Brittney Griner, the American basketball player who has been detained in Moscow since February, pleaded guilty to drug charges.
  2. James Caan, an actor known for his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, died at 82.
  3. The IRS asked for reviews of the rare tax audits that former FBI Director James Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe, were given, and that some in Congress suggested were connected to Comey and McCabe’s investigation of Donald Trump.

Dispatches

Unsettled Territory: When a nation fetishizes firearms, Imani Perry argues, no one is safe.

Brooklyn, Everywhere: “I would prefer to have a dumber phone and a sharper, possibly happier me,” Xochitl Gonzalez writes.

Work in Progress: Derek Thompson asks, Why are the police so bad at solving murders?

Deep Shtetl: Contrary to initial headlines, the Jewish Agency in Russia has not been shuttered, Yair Rosenberg reports. But the repression of Jews in the country is real.


Evening Read
A crane lifts up a teddy bear by its foot.
(Getty; The Atlantic)

Cities Aren’t Built for Kids

Story by Stephanie H. Murray

To the east of Amsterdam’s city center sits Funenpark, a peaceful little quarter shaped like a triangle. Its edges are lined with stores and public spaces, including a day care, a bookstore, and a primary school next to a large playground. Sprinkled across the enclave, apartment buildings sit amid plots of grass that blend into smooth stone walkways. There are no private yards or driveways in Funenpark, and no cars. On a bright afternoon in early June, I left my daughters at the jungle gym with their dad while I biked around.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break

A minion with chest hair and a lighter, next to a minion with rainbow suspenders
(Illumination Entertainment & Universal Pictures)

Read. “King of the River”—a poem published in The Atlantic in 1970—addresses the Pacific salmon, a creature with a dramatic life cycle.

Watch. The new Minions movie, in theaters now, will probably make you smile, as long as you don’t overthink it.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Speaking of Boris Johnson, if you’re seeking views on British politics that might surprise you, I have a recommendation. We often rely on former presidents of the United States for their experience and insight (well, except for Donald Trump, whom we might be relying on to answer a subpoena at some point). My favorite source of such advice is the 37th president, Richard Nixon, who, contrary to vicious rumors, is still alive and tweeting as @dick_nixon, as well as writing a column that you can find here. (There is a rumor that says that the New York playwright Justin Sherin is writing as Nixon, but I simply don’t believe anyone could replicate Nixon’s idioms and speech so precisely.) Nixon’s Twitter feed is a treat to read on any number of issues, and his political acumen is undeniable: He predicted Johnson’s fall, among other things.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.