So farewell, then, Boris. He hasn’t resigned at the time of writing, but it’s hard to see how the great escape artists will get out of this one. He’s been handcuffed, gagged, placed in a strait jacket, locked in an iron cabinet and tossed into the sea.
It’s quite an ignominious end for a political leader who won an 80-seat majority less than three years ago. Unless he negotiates a grace period whereby he stays on as leader while a leadership election takes place, he’ll have served less time in office than Theresa May. Where did it all go wrong?
I’ve been a fan of Boris’s since the first moment I saw him thirty-nine years ago. I’ve described this many times, most recently in Quillette just before Boris became Prime Minister in July 2019:
I first set eyes on Boris Johnson in the autumn of 1983 when we went up to Oxford at the same time. I knew who he was since my uncle Christopher was an ex-boyfriend of his mother’s and he had told me to keep an eye out for him, but I still wasn’t prepared for the sight (and sound) of him at the dispatch box of the Oxford Union. This was the world famous debating society where ambitious undergraduates honed their public-speaking skills before embarking on careers in politics or journalism, and Boris was proposing the motion.
With his huge mop of blond hair, his tie askew and his shirt escaping from his trousers, he looked like an overgrown schoolboy. Yet with his imposing physical build, his thick neck and his broad, Germanic forehead, there was also something of Nietzsche’s Übermensch about him. You could imagine him in lederhosen, wandering through the Black Forest with an axe over his shoulder, looking for ogres to kill. This same combination—a state of advanced dishevelment and a sense of coiled strength, of an almost tangible will to power—was even more pronounced in his way of speaking.
He began to advance an argument in what sounded like a parody of the high style in British politics—theatrical, dramatic, self-serious—when—a few seconds in—he appeared to completely forget what he was about to say. He looked up, startled—Where am I?—and asked the packed chamber which side he was supposed to be on. “What’s the motion, anyway?” Before anyone could answer, a light bulb appeared above his head and he was off, this time in an even more orotund, florid manner. Yet within a few seconds he’d wrong-footed himself again, this time because it had suddenly occurred to him that there was an equally compelling argument for the opposite point of view. This endless flipping and flopping, in which he seemed to constantly surprise himself, went on for the next 15 minutes. The impression he gave was of someone who’d been plucked from his bed in the middle of the night and then plonked down at the dispatch box of the Oxford Union without the faintest idea of what he was supposed to be talking about.
I’d been to enough Union debates at this point to know just how mercilessly the crowd could punish those who came before them unprepared. That was particularly true of freshmen, who were expected to have mastered all the arcane procedural rules, some of them dating back to the Union’s founding in 1823. But Boris’s chaotic, scatter-brained approach had the opposite effect. The motion was deadly serious—“This House Would Reintroduce Capital Punishment”—yet almost everything that came out of his mouth provoked gales of laughter. This was no ordinary undergraduate proposing a motion, but a Music Hall veteran performing a well-rehearsed comic routine. His lack of preparedness seemed less like evidence of his own shortcomings as a debater and more a way of sending up all the other speakers, as well as the pomposity of the proceedings. You got the sense that he could easily have delivered a highly effective speech if he’d wanted to, but was too clever and sophisticated—and honest—to enter into such a silly charade. To do what the other debaters were doing, and pretend he believed what was coming out of his mouth, would have been patronising. Everyone else was taking the audience for fools, but not him. He was openly insincere and, in being so, somehow seemed more authentic than everyone else.
To say I was impressed would be an understatement. A few years before arriving at Oxford I had watched the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford novel, and had been expecting to meet the modern-day equivalents of Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche: larger-than-life, devil-may-care aristocrats delivering bon mots in between sips of champagne and spoonfuls of caviar. But the reality was very different: warm beer, stale sandwiches and second-hand opinions. Lots of spotty students, all as gauche as me. Less like an Oscar Wilde play than a Mike Leigh film.
In Boris, though, it was as if I’d finally encountered the ‘real’ Oxford, the Platonic ideal. While the rest of us were works-in-progress, vainly trying on different personae, Boris was the finished article. He was an instantly recognizable character from the comic tradition in English letters: a pantomime toff. He was Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night demanding more cakes and ale, Bertie Wooster trying to pass himself off as Eustace H. Plimsoll when appearing in court after overdoing it on Boat Race night. Yet at the same time fizzing with vim and vinegar—“bursting with spunk,” as he once put it, explaining why he needs so many different female partners. He was a cross between Hugh Grant and a silverback gorilla.
Reading that piece back, it’s a little embarrassing how enthusiastic I was about him. I posed the question everyone was asking at the time: “Can the clown prince conquer his Falstaffian urges and discover his inner homme sérieux? Can Hal become Henry V?”
And, foolishly, I concluded that he could – although I caveated that by acknowledging it wasn’t a rational verdict, based on his track record:
The rational part of my brain is still full of doubts and uncertainties. What sensible person would look at Boris’s peripatetic career and rakish personality and conclude that he is the right man to lead Britain at this moment of maximum danger? But at a more primitive level, a level impervious to reason, I cannot help but believe. From the first moment I saw him, I felt I was in the presence of someone special, someone capable of achieving great things. And I’ve never quite been able to dispel that impression.
To be fair, I had three reasons for backing Boris in July 2019, two of which turned out to be good reasons. I thought he could win the next General Election – which he did – and I thought he could get Brexit done – and… well, admittedly, there’s still some work to do on that front but at least he took us out of the EU, and with a deal to boot.
My third reason – that he was the right leader to take advantage of Britain’s new-found independence, cutting taxes, slashing red tape, embracing oil and gas production, championing free speech, defending our heritage, and generally behaving like a true blue conservative – turned out to be way off the mark. The left-wing commentariat like to portray Boris as a right-wing populist – Britain’s answer to Donald Trump – but if you take Europe out of the equation he’s more like Tony Blair in a blond wig. Is Carrie to blame? I fear that was always wishful thinking on the part of die-hard believers. The pitiable truth is that he cannot bear to be disliked, particularly by the metropolitan liberal elite. Watching him pander to them – such as blaming Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on ‘toxic masculinity’ – has been a source of ongoing frustration.
My disillusionment kicked in two years ago when he imposed the first national lockdown, which I wrote about in the Spectator:
A friend emailed me earlier this week in despair about the Prime Minister. “Boris reminds me of a hereditary king — Edward II or Henry VI — who is so staggeringly incompetent that he must be removed before doing too much damage,“ he wrote. “I felt the same way about May but Boris is worse.”
He is not the only person feeling like this. It pains me to say it, but I too have given up on Boris. The final straw was hearing him talk about his plans to create an army of ‘Covid marshals’ last week – Britain’s very own, curtain-twitching version of the Stasi.
What on earth happened to the freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character I voted for? Oliver Hardy has left the stage, replaced by Oliver Cromwell. His Government has even said it wants to lower the speed limit on motorways to 60 mph. Didn’t Boris once say that voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3? Where did that guy go?
He came back – sort of. I never really got over the pang of disappointment I felt when he abandoned his ‘take-it-on-the-chin’ approach to the pandemic – the Swedish approach – and decided to fall into lockstep behind most European leaders. But at least he stuck to his guns and lifted restrictions on ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19th 2021 – and that was in spite of the usual chorus of ‘scientists’ telling him it was reckless and irresponsible and would cause hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. He clearly wobbled a bit at Christmas – and the chorus piped up again, refusing to acknowledge that they’d cried wolf six months earlier. But he more or less held firm and the remaining restrictions were then lifted, one by one, and the rest of the world followed suit (apart from China). He showed real leadership in the aftermath of the pandemic – if only he’d done the same 14 months earlier.
His defenders in the last few weeks have trotted out the line that he “got the big calls right” – and I suppose one out of two isn’t bad given that nearly every other Western leader scored zero for two. As for going all-in on the Covid vaccines and stretching every sinew to roll them out, that looks like a less impressive “call” with each passing day.
Ukraine? I give him points for showing a bit of manly vigour in defence of Western values, but I know that’s a minority view in the sceptical community – and the frequency with which he’s flaunted his close relationship with Zelensky and his popularity in the Ukraine in recent weeks has been so shameless as to almost reduce those points to zero.
So what was it that did him in? The obvious answer is his lack of a moral compass and Boris’s recent difficulties, which have all been of his own making, are a good illustration of the old saw that acting selfishly, unconstrained by conscience, ends up not being in your own self-interest. Is he a sociopath? Probably not, but he’s clearly an outlier on the morality spectrum.
However, while lack of ‘character’ has clearly been a factor in his demise, it’s also to do with his general inattentiveness. I’m sure if he’d thought through his response to the recent Chris Pincher scandal he’d have realised that his initial story – I know nothin’ – would quickly unravel. How to account for such carelessness? As a journalist, he was in the habit of tossing things off without giving them much thought, but as a Prime Minister? Why didn’t Prince Hall become Henry V? Is he constitutionally incapable? Has slapdashery just got into his soul? It doesn’t seem to be laziness, exactly, more that he’s acquired the habit of doing so many different things at once he cannot devote much time to any of them. Standard operating procedure for a journalistic edge-lord, I suppose, but disastrous in a PM. He spread himself too thin.
Assuming he goes – indeed, may have gone by the time you read this – what will he do next? I imagine Carrie will be off pretty sharpish (although that may be unfair), which means he’ll have three sets of alimony to pay so he’ll need to start earning the big bucks. Expect a seven-figure deal for his political memoirs, a column in the Telegraph and an after-dinner speaking tour – and probably half a dozen other gigs. Presenting Have I Got News For You? Kind of tragic, really.
Stop Press: Boris has resigned. MailOnline has more.