Back to the Future in Post-Boris Britain

When Johnson won big in 2019, pundits hailed the dawn of a new political era. But his party had already been in power for nine long years—and parties that stay in power that long tend, in Britain, to exhaust public support and run low on new ideas and political talent. Johnson wallpapered over that reality for a time, and now it is reasserting itself, with a vengeance.

It’s become hard to imagine a political landscape not structured around Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson carries a red suitcase.
Photograph by David Sedlecký, via Wikimedia.

On the evening of July 7, the day Boris Johnson announced that he would resign as Britain’s prime minister, I walked along the edge of Parliament Square, the plaza opposite the House of Commons. The last time I’d been here at a time of political consequence—the night, in January 2020, when Britain formally left the European Union—you couldn’t move for revelers brandishing tokens of Johnson’s signature political achievement; a Brexit pin badge even rested on a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.1 On July 7, save for its typical trickle of tourists and commuters, the square was quiet. A sweltering sun bounced off a statue of Winston Churchill, illuminating a line of dried bird poop running down his face.

There was a greater hubbub on College Green, a smaller patch of grass nearby where broadcasters pitch up to interview politicos on the news of the day. The BBC had at least two pavilions on the green; an anchor from a rival right-wing network dabbed sweat from his brow while another held up a notebook to shield her eyes from the sun. Matt Hancock, a lawmaker in Johnson’s Conservative Party who resigned as health minister after leaked footage showed him snogging a colleague in violation of his own Covid rules, stood in the center of the green, gesticulating elastically into a TV camera.

Hancock’s presence was displeasing to a gaggle of protesters who stood behind a low fence at one corner of the green, lobbing gentle abuse. Their ringleader was Steve Bray, a stubby Welshman in his early fifties who shot to fame after he started pitching up in the environs of Parliament, festooned in the yellow and blue of the EU flag, and bellowing “STOOOOOP BREEEEEXIIIIIT” at the top of his lungs. The week before Johnson announced his resignation, police had confiscated a portable sound system from Bray, citing, Bray said, new laws that Johnson’s government pushed through to curb protest rights. (When the police asked Bray for his address, he replied, “Mickey Mouse, 10 Downing Street.”) He risked prosecution, but he did not seem deterred. As Hancock spoke, Bray played “Mad World” on a different loudspeaker, followed by the theme music from Benny Hill, which the actor Hugh Grant had requested via Twitter earlier in the day.

As I took in the scene under the welcome shade of a tree, a man with slick silver hair and a plush suit left the green. He could easily have been a lawmaker, though I didn’t recognize him. As he walked past, he smiled mischievously at a companion. “Steve Bray for PM,” he said.

The scene on College Green is now a common one in British politics: outwardly professional, with heavy undercurrents of farce. Ever since Hancock quit a little over a year ago, Johnson’s government has stacked scandals like Jenga blocks. There was the one where Johnson and his wife covered their residence in dubiously financed gold wallpaper; the one where Johnson and his staff attended parties in their offices while everyone else in the country observed strict Covid rules; and the ones where Conservative lawmakers were ensnared in a lobbying scandal, caught watching pornography in the House of Commons (the lawmaker in question said he was looking for a website about tractors), and convicted of child abuse, leading to a series of stinging special-election defeats for Johnson’s party. Then, on June 30, a Johnson ally quit as a government whip amid myriad allegations of sexual misconduct. Johnson claimed that he hadn’t been aware of any specific allegations prior to appointing the whip. In fact, he had.2

Earlier in June, rebel Conservatives had tried and failed to dislodge Johnson via a vote of no confidence. Under party rules, another such challenge would be impossible for at least another year. As the whip scandal blew up, however, ministers in Johnson’s government decided that they’d had had enough. Sajid Javid, Hancock’s successor as health minister, resigned first, followed by Rishi Sunak, the finance minister, followed by more than fifty colleagues from various levels of government over the course of the next forty hours. As Johnson refused to budge, his colleagues mulled changing the no-confidence rules to allow a second vote. Eventually, Johnson conceded to reality and pledged, in a characteristically graceless televised speech, to step down.

If it was hard for many Brits to trust what they heard during Johnson’s resignation speech, it was not because fears that Johnson might attempt a Trump-style last stand were particularly plausible, but because it’s become hard to imagine a political landscape not structured around Boris Johnson. While the broader Trump comparison, beloved by commentators on both sides of the Atlantic, is thin, Johnson certainly has supercharged a love-him-or-loathe-him (most recently the latter) dynamic in British politics, as he has towered over it. He defined Britain in the eyes of the world to an uncommon extent for a prime minister, an office that has had many larger-than-life occupants but lacks the prestige of a presidency. (Johnson was in fact born in the US, and his father once told me that he “could have been president.” Americans, count yourselves lucky.)

Johnson has doubtless been a politically consequential figure. Without his heavyweight intervention in favor of Brexit in 2016, Britain might still be in the EU today; his massive win in 2019 allowed his government to formalize the Brexit process after years of tedious gridlock in Parliament. In some ways, though, his oxygen-sucking infamy obscures far more modest truths about his legacy.

Since 2019, Johnson has effectively kicked key Brexit cans, not least the highly fraught status of Northern Ireland within the UK, down the road. And other achievements that he has touted have been reactions to unforeseen crises—a quick Covid vaccine rollout; strong support for Ukraine—for which he can hardly take sole or unqualified credit. (Before vaccines were made available, tens of thousands of Brits died as Johnson dithered.) He promised to “level up” the country after Brexit by revitalizing historically working-class—but recently Conservative-voting—northern English districts, but that plan has been underfunded, and not yet amounted to much more than vague aspiration. Johnson will say that he needed more time to see the project through; he set goals for 2030. But his adhesive, exhausting proximity to sleaze and scandal—and his infamous allergy to attention to detail—never made him a realistic candidate to be a steadfast and transformational ten-year prime minister. Even the wallpaper started to peel off.

And yet, Johnson has, in some sense, indelibly remade British electoral politics—if not in his image then at least via his sporadic powers of common touch. The strange coalition he built in 2019—those traditionally Labour-voting areas, known colloquially as “the Red Wall,” along with richer, culturally snobbier Conservative heartlands—was born not only of Johnson’s relative popularity at the time and the idiosyncratic political exigencies of Brexit, but of an implied promise to unite two broad groups of voters who would seem to be counting on different things economically: a more muscular government, versus a more laissez-faire one.

In June, Johnson’s party lost a pair of special elections on the same day: one in the Red Wall and one in the rural south. Johnson’s moral character was blamed, just as it would be for his resignation a few weeks later. A narrative has taken hold that Johnson was ousted over personality, not policy. That’s basically true. But philosophical tensions, more profound than mere dissatisfaction with his elephantine leadership style, had started to tug at his coalition, and Johnson—himself a walking philosophical contradiction, who was not ideologically committed to a more interventionist state before political happenstance made it seem like a good idea—struggled to smooth them over. Blunt force of personality fails when your personality loses its force.

Johnson is set to continue as prime minister through the end of the summer in a caretaker capacity, while his party goes to war over his succession. In some sense, Johnson was always a caretaker: so narcissistic and preoccupied with putting out fires that he never seemed truly focused on moving British politics forward, or even to figure out what “forward” might mean. That task will now fall to someone else. It’s not clear that anyone who might get the job is really ready for it.

Steve Bray will not be the next prime minister, but after Johnson said he’d quit, some of the Conservative lawmakers who threw their hat in the ring were barely more plausible. By July 12, a bloated starting field had been whittled down from eleven candidates to eight. Javid (Johnson’s Brutus), Grant Shapps (who once held a second job as a tech entrepreneur under the pseudonym “Michael Green”), and Rehman Chishti (me neither) didn’t make the cut. Kemi Badenoch (a Ben & Jerry’s-bashing anti-“woke” zealot), Nadhim Zahawi (a former Teletubbies merchandise salesman) and Penny Mordaunt (who once said the word “cock” six times in a Parliamentary debate after losing a dare) were among those who did.

A brutal week of culling—and attendant talk of S&M dossiers and sabotage—later and Conservative lawmakers had reduced the field to a final two: Sunak—the former finance minister, who, like Johnson, was fined for going to a party during lockdown, and who has also faced sharp questions over his wife’s tax affairs—and Liz Truss, who is foreign minister but is very angry about foreign cheese.3 Paid-up Conservative Party members—around two hundred thousand people, or 0.3 percent of the population—will now have the final say in picking Britain’s next prime minister. The precise demographic makeup of the membership isn’t clear, but they are disproportionately white, male, southern, old, and right-wing.4

The early sparring in the race was visibly conducted with these members front of mind. In addition to Americanized culture-war guff that, in my humble opinion,5 has little purchase with the wider British electorate, tax cuts emerged as a key issue and, soon, a key dividing line between Sunak and Truss, with the latter pledging to slash taxes straight away and the former insisting that doing so would be irresponsible. Sunak, however, has pledged tax cuts in the medium term, while more broadly seeking to establish a reputation for fiscal restraint. Both candidates have made vaguely reassuring noises about funding for public services, but, particularly in Truss’s case, there’s huge cause for skepticism. Ditto “leveling up.” So far, one of the liveliest debates of the race has concerned which candidate can lay the more credible claim to the mantle of Margaret Thatcher. Sunak gave his first speech of the campaign in Thatcher’s hometown, and wrote an op-ed for the right-wing Telegraph making his case literally: “I will be the heir to Margaret Thatcher,” the headline proclaimed. Truss, for her part, has cosplayed as Thatcher in a tank and a fur hat.

At time of writing, Truss was clearly in the lead among Conservative members, apparently on the basis that Sunak—a millionaire fiscal disciplinarian who wants to expand Johnson’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda and who (unlike Truss) backed Brexit—is a “socialist.” There are important differences between the two candidates. But both, broadly, are stale blasts from a pre-Johnson past, when the Conservative government was dogmatically neoliberal in theory and not just in practice. After years of neglect on the party’s watch, Britain is now creaking at the seams.

When Johnson won big in 2019, pundits hailed the dawn of a new political era. But his party had already been in power for nine long years—and parties that stay in power that long tend, in Britain, to exhaust public support and run low on new ideas and political talent. Johnson wallpapered over that reality for a time, and now it is reasserting itself, with a vengeance.

All this should offer an opportunity to the Labour Party, which—since ousting its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in the aftermath of massive 2019 losses—has been led by Keir Starmer, a staid former prosecutor. Starmer has cautiously styled himself as a moderate and has inched forward in the polls without yet laying out a coherent vision for change—positioning himself, first and foremost, as a paragon of competent rectitude to Johnson’s chaos. After Johnson said he would resign, Starmer gave a set-piece speech in which he pledged to “revitalize” public services—though his party has also recently promised “ironclad discipline” with public finances and accused leading Conservatives of “magic money tree economics,” invoking the rhetorical tropes of a much more austere political climate. Starmer has only been in Parliament since 2015, but he has sought the counsel of figures who served Labour in its last spell in government—starting under Tony Blair, in 1997—when the party lurched toward the neoliberal right. Blair himself has said that he wants to advise the next Labour government.

This is frustrating, because Britain currently feels like an unsettled country waiting to be won over to a new political alignment, perhaps even around a radical program of economic reforms. Johnson understood the first part of that assignment, at least, before falling, predictably, on his face. If the current tenor of the race to replace him lives on in his successor’s approach to governing, and if the Labour Party decides to hold that person to fundamentally conservative standards, British politics won’t only freeze, but regress. Thatcher and Blair never faced off in an election. Their political ghosts have done so many times before, and seem likely to do so again.

Earlier on July 7, just down the road from College Green and Parliament Square, Andrea Jenkyns, a Conservative lawmaker and Johnson loyalist, walked into Downing Street to watch her boss resign. As she did so, she turned to a crowd of people who had gathered outside and gave them the middle finger. Later, as she left Downing Street, she confronted the crowd again, shouting, “He who laughs last, laughs the loudest! Wait and see!”

Britain has finally stopped laughing at Johnson’s clownish act. His fellow Conservative lawmakers are still laughing at Britain. Will they last? We’ll have to wait and see.

  1. I also wrote about that event in these pages. 

  2. https://www.politico.eu/article/boris-johnson-forgot-remember-ally-misconduct-chris-pincher/ 

  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhBtilyGWPo 

  4. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/jul/08/tory-members-over-60-white-male-choice-of-leader 

  5. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/feb/17/british-tories-war-on-woke-oliver-dowden 

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