Boris Johnson is one of the most effective political operators of our times; there’s no denying that. Behind the goofiness, the I-just-woke-up looks, and the constant inflow of memes, there lies a political animal with a killer instinct. He built up a career from the pages of The Spectator through the mayor’s office of London, an unexpected Brexit victory that ended in him moving to Downing Street No. 10 and providing the Conservative Party its largest general election victory in almost 40 years.
And he’s also a political survivor. He seemed to undergo scandal to scandal and crisis to crisis nearly unscathed. Still, his chameleonic tactics eventually led to the impression he was a man with no convictions of his own.
But not many expected how purposeless his survival would be.
Boris Johnson had the opportunity to shape up the modern Conservative Party. Instead, he’ll be an asterisk in Tory history. His now iconic image on a zip wire promoting the 2012 London Olympics is a good allegory of his short-lived premiership: funny, filled with hollow national pride, and always hanging on a thread.
There’s a significant difference between a political operator and a statesman. And it seemed that despite Johnson believing he was a modern combination of Churchill and Thatcher that would enjoy a three-decade premiership; he barely surpassed his unremarkable predecessor.
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After using the whole of its meme personality and political talent to get Brexit done and eventually become PM, as my colleague Ben Kew said, the joke became old.
Boris Johnson seemed bored as PM. It seemed as if he felt that Downing Street was a straitjacket where he could not exploit his political and intellectual talent or his personality. He famously told Dominic Cummings once that being a PM was “like getting up every morning pulling a 747 down the runway.” He looked tired. He even started combing his hair, making him look like another boring bureaucrat, which in the end it’s what he was.
This is not to say Boris didn’t have his moments. He delivered the most significant victory for British sovereignty since WW2 in Brexit; he stood firm alongside Hong Kong protestors and was the unwavering leader of Europe in defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
But he never delivered. As usual, the coalition that got him to power was a mix of conservatives who no one knows what they conserve, those who secretly, and not so secretly, hate the Glorious Revolution, and Red Tories.
Keeping such an unnatural coalition would be a titanic endeavor even in regular times. For a short while, it seemed that Boris could pull it out. But Covid came. It didn’t kill Boris but killed his premiership because cannibalism is the Tories’ grandest tradition.
Thus, it took a couple of scandals to tear him down for good.
His electoral base permanently alienated working-class people who felt they weren’t being heard by elites more worried about their multicultural experiment. And he had the instinct that the future of Toryism was its past, namely, one-nation conservatism: A populist Conservative Party that pushed back in the culture war against European bureaucrats, senseless economic liberalism, and uncontrolled migration.
But it all stayed as an instinct without substance. All the delivered was higher taxes, higher rents, an incomprehensible Covid policy, and petty scandal after another.
In the end, it was all a giant blob of meaningless boredom, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”