The recent resignation of Boris Johnson from his post as UK prime minister came in the wake of a series of scandals and poor bi-election results, but is this really the end for the outspoken and charismatic former Etonian?
Boris Johnson was groomed for power, having grown up between New York City, London and Brussels, attending an English boarding school and winning a scholarship to the factory of elite leaders that is Eton College. He went on to study classics at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford Union.
Following a brief stint as a management consultant, Johnson embarked on a career in journalism. Starting out in 1987 as a reporter for The Times, he was fired for fabricating a quotation but nonetheless hired to be a correspondent of The Daily Telegraph covering the European Community (1989–94), before becoming assistant editor (1994–99). It was in 1994 that Johnson became a political columnist for The Spectator, only to go on to become the magazine’s editor in 1999 and continue in that role until 2005.
Johnson’s role at The Spectator propelled him into the public eye and soon after his first unsuccessful foray into politics – as the 1997 Conservative Party candidate for Clwyd South in the House of Commons, losing decisively to Labour Party incumbent Martyn Jones – he began appearing on a variety of television shows, beginning in 1998 with popular BBC talk show Have I Got News for You.
His bumbling demeanour and occasionally irreverent remarks made him a popular public figure and he stood for Parliament again in 2001, this time winning the contest in the Henley-on-Thames constituency, though his rising political star was faltering again by 2004, when he was dismissed as shadow arts minister over rumours of an affair. He nonetheless secured re-election to his parliamentary seat in 2005 and went on to win a narrow victory in the London mayoral election of May 2008, beating Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone. He soon fulfilled a campaign promise to step down as an MP and was re-elected mayor in 2012, again besting the once popular Livingstone.
His return to Parliament came in 2015, when he won the west London seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. He retained his post as mayor of London, while the victory fuelled speculation that he would eventually challenge then Prime Minister and fellow former Etonian David Cameron for party leadership.
Johnson opted not to run for re-election in London’s 2016 mayoral race, instead switching to the emerging issue of Brexit and becoming the leading spokesman for the “Leave” campaign in the run-up to the national referendum on the UK’s continued membership in the EU.
The campaign’s success prompted Cameron to resign and Johnson to announce his candidacy for party leadership, but a lack of support within the party led to him quickly withdrawing his bid and giving way to Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron and promptly appointed Johnson as her foreign secretary. However, May’s failure to secure a favourable Brexit deal gave Johnson a reason to join other cabinet members in tendering their resignation in July 2018. He remained a persistent critic of PM May’s approach to Brexit negotiations with the EU and was among the 10 candidates to replace her after she again failed to secure parliamentary support for her ‘soft Brexit’ plan and announced her resignation. Her potential successor was whittled down to four and eventually two candidates through voting within the party ranks, with Johnson ultimately winning 66 per cent of the vote and officially becoming prime minister on 24th July 2019, but there would be no honeymoon period for his premiership.
Though Conservative party rules prevent him from standing in the next leadership election, few would rule out the possibility of him attempting an audacious second crack at being prime minister in the future
Internal and cross-aisle wrangling over Brexit would threaten to topple Johnson’s cabinet before it had even warmed its seats, but he would prove successful in securing the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU just six months into his term, on 31st January 2020, saying in his address to the British people at the time: “This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama.”
And what a drama…
Hammering out the details of a new trade deal with the EU would prove tough for Johnson and his government, with protracted and bitter negotiations on a number of issues, but these vital negotiations were soon forced onto the backburner by the emergence of the catastrophic public health crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Johnson initially attempted to take a low-key approach to combating the pandemic, but infection numbers and public pressure quickly compelled his government to impose harsh lockdown measures. Johnson would go on to initiate and rescind a series of stay-at-home orders (varying by region), for which he was both criticised and praised. However, the Johnson government’s response to the pandemic would make headlines for very different reasons in late November 2021, when reports emerged about Johnson cabinet and staff parties earlier in the pandemic that violated the government’s own bans on social gatherings. Dubbed “Partygate,” the resulting scandal hinged not only on the nature of the alleged violations, but also on Johnson’s initial insistence that the government-issued guidelines had been “followed at all times”. As reports emerged of an increasing number of illegal social gatherings held at Downing Street, Johnson apologised for attending one such party at which drinks were served, but which he said he’d thought was going to be a work event. He went on to claim falsely that no pandemic-related rules had been broken – an offense that has historically called for resignation.
In late January 2022, an investigation into the Partygate scandal by senior civil servant Sue Gray was reported to Parliament, though in a truncated and redacted form so as not to compromise the investigation into a number of gatherings that had been subsequently undertaken by the London Metropolitan Police. Johnson once again issued an apology to Parliament and was roundly castigated, even by Conservatives, some of whom joined opposition MPs in calling on him to step down.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemed to forestall the threat to Johnson’s leadership, with many Brits feeling that this moment of existential crisis for Europe was not the time for a change of leadership. Nevertheless, Johnson’s grip on power remained precarious, particularly after the police investigation into Partygate led to him receiving a “fixed penalty notice” and fined for his transgressions of pandemic-related rules, making him the first incumbent British PM in living memory to be found to have broken the law.
By the first week of June, fallout from the release of the full report by Gray (in May) and growing discontent with the PM’s role in the Partygate scandal led to no fewer than 54 Conservative MPs sending letters to the party’s 1922 Committee requesting Johnson’s resignation. With the number of written requests required to force a party leadership vote having been met, 359 Conservative MPs participated in a secret 6th June vote of confidence in Johnson. Johnson needed 180 affirmative votes to survive as leader. He received 211, but the 148 MPs who voted against him constituted roughly 40 per cent of the party’s MPs and exceeded the 133 MPs who had voted against Theresa May in her 2018 confidence vote.
Just weeks after surviving the vote, Johnson’s standing as party leader was further undermined by the loss of two Conservative seats in by-elections of 24th June 2022, in Tiverton and Honiton, and in Wakefield. Sex scandals had forced the resignation of the Conservative MPs holding those seats, and in early July Johnson’s handling of another sex scandal, involving Conservative Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher, would finally force the resignation of the embattled prime minister, whose grip on power had for so long seemed impervious to scandal. Despite the multitude of defections, Johnson initially dug in his heels, but then finally, on 7th July 2022, announced his immediate resignation as party leader.
However, some are now speculating that Johnson could be planning an unlikely political comeback. As The Guardian reported, following his final appearance in Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson departed the dispatch box with the words “hasta la vista, baby”, telling MPs “mission largely accomplished – for now”, in typical attention-seeking style.
“He cannot stand not having attention. It’s hard-wired into him. So, he is playing with us. He is doing it deliberately so we all rush to write articles saying: ‘Will he come back?’, ‘Can he come back?’, ‘How will he come back?’ It’s actually quite funny,” said Sonia Purnell, a biographer of Johnson.
Though Conservative party rules prevent him from standing in this leadership election, few would rule out the possibility of him attempting an audacious second crack at being prime minister in the future.
Incumbent UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will face off against former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak in the final round of the closely fought contest to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and UK prime minister. Trade policy minister Penny Mordaunt became the latest candidate to crash out of the race after receiving the least support in a fifth round of voting among Conservative MPs. Sunak maintained his existing lead by winning 137 votes, while Truss finished second with 113 votes and Mordaunt slipped out of runoff contention with just 105 votes. Truss and Sunak will now go head-to-head, with the results of the final vote by Conservative Party members set to be announced by 5th September at the latest, when Johnson is expected to finally step down in his capacity as caretaker prime minister.
“He won’t want to go out in this way, although he got his standing ovation – albeit not from Theresa May,” added Purnell.
“He’s always measuring himself against others. That’s what you are trained to do at Eton. He’ll constantly be looking at who managed to stay in for how long. And three years for him is a pretty poor showing and he won’t like that. However, even more than that, he just wants to be “Top Dog”. Forget “Big Dog”. He’s programmed to win. Then once he wins, he doesn’t care about it. It’s all about the winning, so he will see this as a challenge.”
Several former UK prime ministers have bounced back to be re-elected. Sir Winston Churchill, Johnson’s hero, was PM twice, though he, and Labour’s Harold Wilson who achieved the same, did not resign as party leaders in the interim.
“I think you’d have to go back to the 19th century to see people going in and out [without remaining as party leader],” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of The Conservatives Since 1945.
But is it too late for the aging Johnson?
“He’s 58. He will think of himself in the prime of life. He will think he’s learned a lot by being prime minister. And he’s alluded to the fact he was undefeated in any election. So, I would be very surprised if he excludes [a comeback],” said biographer Andrew Gimson, whose book Boris Johnson: Portrait of a Trouble Maker at No 10 is set to be published in September.
“He will know that some members of the public will like the sheer implausibility of a comeback by someone who seems to be down and out. And he will want to prove to all the people who danced on his grave that he is not actually dead,” added Gimson.