We all have bad weeks or even a bad couple of weeks, but rarely do they portend the collapse of a career. While it’s far from certain, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson might be experiencing one of those rare times that is that bad.
About two weeks ago a big story broke that a host of Johnson’s top staff and Members of Parliament (MPs) from Johnson’s Conservative—or “Tory”—Party partook in a Christmas bash last year at the Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing St. The event violated the Covid lockdown rules in place at that time. Damning videos surfaced featuring one prominent Tory, Jacob Rees-Mogg, joking about the illegality of the party and mocking Covid safety regulations as well as another showing one of Johnson’s staff members making light of the rule-breaking. Johnson, ever obstinate, made the mistake of denying the get-together ever happened, just before the evidence was publicly revealed. Later, he walked his assertion back with an apology.
This week, things got even worse. When Johnson sought to enact new restrictions to slow the spread of the contagious Omicron variant and promote vaccination, many of his own party’s MPs rebelled, rejecting his plans. His chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, resigned, cryptically citing concerns about this same move. All this piles on top of another scandal not long before the rest in which Johnson defended—and pursued Parliamentary rule changes to protect—one of his MPs from a corruption investigation and suspension.
As a result, Johnson’s approval has taken a nosedive. All in all, he’s having a rough week. Or…couple of weeks. Month-and-a-half. Take your pick.
For Johnson, this isn’t just bad news. It’s little secret that Johnson, who has steeped himself in the classical oratorical tradition and general general history of Winston Churchill, wishes to be a legend of similar stature to Britain’s greatest modern leader. His career ending here, in a fireball of dishonesty and farce rather than a blaze of glory, would be the worst thing imaginable.
The only problem for Johnson is that this is not all that surprising an outcome. Sure, he’s had a knack for relatability—thanks in large part to his haircut and little to his tux-spackled education at Eton and Oxford—but he’s never had much of a game plan. He seems to have thought that championing Brexit was an opportunity of similar scope to WWII in the restoration of British honour, but, despite the genuine enormity of that yet-unresolved challenge, it was Covid which actually presented the greatest chance for Johnson to secure his legacy.
Johnson’s key trouble, and why this isn’t all that shocking, is that he’s never had a clear game-plan. He promised to “level up” Britain into a global force, without much clarity as to what that meant. Years ago, he praised the mayor of the town in the movie Jaws for not closing the beaches, even though it was wrong, because it was “heroic.” And this has formed a bedrock of Johnson’s politics: to promise heroism before anything else, despite the fact that whatever is promised might be, in fact, wrong.
This is a challenging promise to uphold at any time, because life and politics demand sacrifice for reward, but that challenge has become especially difficult in the age of Covid, when very acutely painful measures become necessary to achieve any heroic outcome. Now, as Johnson has attempted to embrace those uncomfortable measures, his supporters and MPs have denied him, because that is not what he advertised.
It’s an oft-cited weakness of democracy that a politician can promise the people anything, and whoever promises the most will win, despite the fact that he may not be able to deliver. It’s worth noting that Johnson has made a career of defying the electorally impossible, but his tale—if this downturn does spell his demise in the long-term—is a cautionary one. You may be able to win elections on half-baked false promises of rose-laden meadows, but you are likely unable to win your legacy as the provider of such a golden future. Democracy, despite its flaws, does offer real opportunities to hold leadership accountable. While voters may embrace con-men from time to time, sooner or later, they tend to catch on.Subscribe to Spectacles