How a Grotesque Mediocrity Like Boris Johnson Became Britain’s Prime Minister

Boris Johnson stepped down as an MP last week. The entitlement typical of Britain’s privately educated elite defined his career, but he added to it a unique brand of dishonesty and opportunism.

Then prime minister Boris Johnson giving an update on the COVID-19 pandemic during a virtual press conference on March 29, 2021 in London, England. (Hollie Adams / Getty Images)

No one ever voted for Boris Johnson because they believed him to be truthful, morally upright, or even competent. But in the space of less than a year, he has been forced to resign as prime minister, as leader of the Conservative Party, and now as an MP, for lying.

Last year, a Tory rebellion forced him out of office. In November last year, the Daily Mirror made claims, later corroborated by incriminating photos and videos, that Johnson had hosted illegal parties in Downing Street and lied about them. This may seem trivial when compared to the other failings for which critics could have rightly pilloried the former prime minister. When compared to his lethal foot-dragging over implementing COVID-19 restrictions, his sleaze, and his corruption, lying about parties looks fairly minor.

Revelations of Johnson’s misdemeanors, which took place during the severest stretch of 2020’s lockdown, when people were unable to visit dying relatives, had the effect of severely worsening the Tories polling relative to rival parties. The incidents, their number is yet to be verified, confirmed people in their worst suspicions about the Conservatives: that they are a rich elite who do what they want when they want, while the majority suffer.

A report by a House of Commons select committee now asserts that Johnson knowingly held illegal parties in Downing Street during the COVID-19 lockdowns, lied to parliament in claiming the parties were legal, lied again in claiming that he was advised that they were legal, and then lied again “when he purported to correct the record but instead continued to mislead the House.” The report recommended a ten-day suspension from the House of Commons. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is enough to trigger a by-election.

Johnson, who saw the conclusions of the report last week, preempted it by announcing his own departure, and firing off turbocharged invective at the “kangaroo court” that impugned his record. He also attacked the government of his successor, Rishi Sunak, for having betrayed the mandate that he earned in 2019, and having turned a poll lag of “a handful of points” into a widening chasm. Since then, Brit punditry has largely been convinced that he’s finished (and good riddance).

They’re probably wrong about this. In responding to the findings with such staggering bad grace, Johnson is doing what he has always excelled at. He is rallying his core constituency with the aim of using them as a battering ram against his opponents. He even persuaded a couple of loyal backbench MPs, Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams, to do a Jonestown with him, inflicting more damage on Sunak. When he says he will “be back,” it isn’t just bluster.

Trianguating His Way to Power

Johnson’s record for telling half-truths was well known when he won the Tory leadership with a two-thirds majority in 2019 and then took the party to a landslide election victory. His liabilities came with the package.

What Johnson offered Tory members, and voters, in 2019 was that amid a constitutional stalemate over Brexit, he was willing to tell any lie, form or break any alliance, and break any rule to get it done. He illegally suspended parliament in order to stop MPs from blocking Brexit. He withdrew the whip — that is, effectively expelled from the party — dozens of Tory MPs who voted with the opposition. Embracing an adversarial approach to politics, he called opponents “collaborators.”

And since the Tories had been shedding votes to the hard-right Brexit Party, a digital party formed around Nigel Farage, the founder of the now-disbanded pro-Brexit UK Independence Party, and his suburban enragés, Johnson stole Farage’s clothes and promised to force Brexit through at any cost, even if it meant a chaotic “no deal” withdrawal. Given the depth of anger, especially among Conservative voters, over the failure to fulfill a democratic mandate agreed by referendum in 2016, this move was necessary to rebuild the Tory vote.

For the Right, Johnson was the charismatic short-termist manipulator the moment required. But Brexit alone does not explain his incredible success. In 2019, under Johnson, the Tories also borrowed a number of the Labour Party’s popular economic policies, above all the promise of extensive state investment paid for by borrowing. This ability to play both sides of the field, rallying the Tory hard core while reaching beyond his party’s traditional voting bloc, was always Johnson’s unique gift as a politician. He was always a right-winger, but — as he conveyed to anyone gullible enough to listen — not that sort of Tory.

Have I Got Racism for You

Johnson began to work out the value of political showmanship in the late 1990s when, as a Telegraph columnist churning out amusingly phrased bigotry and Thatcherite bombast, he started to appear regularly as a guest on Have I Got News for You, the BBC’s weekly satire for the easily amused. At that stage, he was already notorious for fabricating a quote in his first front-page story whilst working as a journalist at the Times, an offense for which he was summarily fired. He had been exposed for having conspired with his friend Darius Guppy to have a journalist beaten up. And in his weekly columns, he would titillate the retired colonels and dim management fare who read Britain’s Telegraph by referring to gays as “tank-topped bumboys.”

On Have I Got News for You, he was a charming punch bag, a butt for increasingly tired and toothless jokes. He contrived a plausible imitation of affability, warmth, bungling fallibility and humility; audiences liked him. The BBC kept bringing him back, including as a host of the show. He was elected as Conservative MP for Henley in 2001 soon after he took over the editorship of the right-wing Spectator. He continued to entertain his readers with his Eton charm, describing Congolese people in the Telegraph as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles.” Yet with his self-satirizing persona on a popular and supposedly subversive program, he was also cultivating a mainstream audience.

Johnson demonstrated the same multiplicity, and the same gift for gaming the media, when he stood as the Conservative candidate for London mayor in 2008. His newspaper columns baited incumbent mayor Ken Livingstone and his soft-left allies as “Trotskyist, car-hating, Hugo Chavez idolizing, newt-fancying hypocrites and bendy bus fetishists.” He was close friends with both the editor and owner of London’s Evening Standard, which ran a vicious campaign against Livingstone in which the paper implied that the then mayor was stacking up illegitimate votes in Muslim areas.

To his base, predominantly middle-class commuters from London’s suburbs, he promised to enforce a “no-strike” deal on the city’s best-organized union, the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union (RMT); knife scanners on the Underground; the cancellation of lefty projects like Livingstone’s oil deal with Venezuela’s government to pay for cheap bus fares; and an end to superfluous and politically correct stuff like funding for rape centers and London’s annual anti-racist Rise festival.

In office, Johnson was too lazy and too eager to duck a punch to wage the most important battles himself. His most important fight as mayor was with the RMT. This, he delegated to an embarrassingly inept, loudmouthed Assembly member called Brian Coleman. Coleman never came close to winning a “no-strike” deal.

Defeated, Johnson started a subsequent fight with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) over attempted changes to shift patterns. This, again, was delegated to Coleman, who promised to “break the FBU.” He was lucky to come away with a compromise, and Johnson was forced to rebuke him for calling union officials “thick.” In practice, notwithstanding the nasty cuts he implemented, Johnson ran the city much as Livingstone had: by getting straight into bed with the City and property developers. But stationing himself in London allowed him to rhetorically distanced himself from the Tory government’s austerity policies, which were lowering living standards and decimating public services across the country.

This was good enough to win him a second term when, in 2012, he massively outpolled the Conservative vote in London, winning 44 percent of first preference votes, as against 32 percent for the Tories in the London Assembly. It helped that many figures in the Labour right detested Livingstone; some openly called for a vote for his rival. It also helped that in 2012, as in 2019, there was a small but decisive liberal constituency whose contempt for the Left overrode their dislike of the Tories. But Johnson’s showmanship, media manipulation, and ability to delegate nastiness was his major asset.

Crucially, all of Johnson’s worst characteristics were fully on display during his eight years as London’s mayor. As Douglas Murphy’s muckraking book Nincompoopolis (2017) demonstrates, Johnson was just as lazy, just as invested in clientelism and cronyism, and just as addicted to auto-monumentalism as mayor as he would prove to be as prime minister. In London he branded a public bike scheme initiated under Livingstone “Boris Bikes,” and reintroduced the old London Routemaster bus as the “Boris Bus.” As prime minster, he would promise to build a “Boris Bridge” connecting the mainland to the north of Ireland.

Understanding Britain’s antiquated class is of use in helping to make sense of Johnson. He is of the establishment but he does not hail from its business wing. His mother was an artist, his father an academic and policy wonk. And unlike most of those politicians who go through Oxbridge and end up ruling the country, he didn’t take Oxford’s famous Political, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) degree.

From public school to Balliol College, his interests lay in the classics, hence his propensity to enliven a speech with a garbled Latin reference. (On leaving office he compared himself to the Roman statesman Cincinnatus who left office only to return as dictator, a temporary position allowing the exercise of special powers.) He thus comes with the self-confidence of the born-to-rule, but without the usual class formation. He is, not just cheerfully amoral, but somewhat détaché. The ruling class could use him, but they could never entirely trust him.

A famed example of Johnson’s unreliability is Brexit. It’s on this subject, more than any other, that he has both rallied the core vote and distanced himself from traditional Tory shibboleths. In fact, as is well known by now, in the run-up to the referendum on Brexit, he was still weighing up which side to back. He wrote two separate columns outlining opposing positions for the Telegraph.

In one, he adhered to the liberal, cosmopolitan, business-minded agenda with which he ruled London, lauding the “market on our doorstep.” In the other, in a self-conscious parody of sonorous Churchillian rhetoric, he wanted to “take back control of our democracy and our country.” In the end, he correctly judged the mood of his base, and the Telegraph ran the pro-Brexit article. If he was already a strong candidate for future Tory leader, this intuitive pivot established his future direction.

Yet it would be too simple to say that Johnson had refashioned himself as an outright reactionary. Even in supporting Brexit, he underlined “downsides” and declared himself a “cosmopolitan” in favor of keeping access to the single market. Moreover, he understood some of the reasons for the Left’s sudden dynamism, evidenced in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

In the seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where he ran to be a Tory MP, immediately after he stood down as London mayor, there was a strong local campaign against the expansion of Heathrow, the UK’s largest airport. Johnson declared his passionate support for the campaign. After election, and standing alongside Corbyn’s ally, shadow chancellor, and local MP, John McDonnell, he said: “I will lie down with you in front of those bulldozers, and stop the building, stop the construction of that third runway.”

While the media was relentlessly attentive to Johnson’s ongoing litany of “gaffes,” especially during his calamitous period as foreign secretary in Theresa May’s government, they often played into his hands. After all, Johnson may have been lazy and incompetent but he wasn’t stupid. His “gaffes” were often calculated manipulations. When he told EU diplomats worried about the business effects of a hard Brexit “fuck business,” he expected it to leak. He expected the news to report that and his assertion that he and others would defeat May’s attempt to deliver a “soft Brexit.”

Once again, he was showing that he wasn’t that sort of Tory. If in effect he was saying, “fuck anything that gets in my way,” he was also conveying to the base that nation came before class and that he was willing to effect a break with a decomposing neoliberal consensus that even Tory voters had grown to dislike.

It was through such diagonal messaging, cutting across classes, that Johnson built his base. Even his periodic racist “gaffes” likely softened the edges of his class-chauvinism for many conservative members of the working class, signaling that he was “one of us.”

Microbial Challenges

Johnson’s language implied that he was a political outsider, capable of channeling the oppositional energies fizzing away in a tense and polarized country into a populist project for national renewal. By delivering on Brexit, the country would be free to have an industrial policy, invest massively in the economy, and stimulate growth in regions usually neglected by Westminster. This was a rightist appropriation of the core of Corbyn’s agenda. And while Corbyn’s leadership was vacillating and playing parliamentary games over Brexit, what Johnson promised was clarity.

In practice, much of Johnson’s appeal was simulacra. Under his leadership, the Tories resorted to unprecedented levels of disinformation, learning from other successful right-wing projects in the United States, Hungary, Brazil, and India. In this, they were assisted by willingly gulled lobby journalists with a furious bias against Corbyn.

Ahead of the election, Johnson made a famous promise to build forty new hospitals — though this pledge was based on classifying mere refurbishments or the addition of a clinical building as a “new” hospital. But everyone knew that Johnson was a liar. It mattered far less than the fact that Johnson would deliver Brexit by whatever means necessary and would invest a hundred billion pounds in the economy.

What brought all this to an abrupt and premature halt, was a microbe. Until February 2020, the Tories had a clear narrative and an agenda that organized policymaking. Brexit was the pivot on which hung a list of the Tory right’s obsessions, such as overhauling the state apparatus to reform an obstructionist civil service, waging war on public sector unions, attacking the Left with new authoritarian legislation, and ratcheting up the war on migrants.

All of this, delivered with the promise of “jobs” and “growth,” would be enough to keep the core vote happy and the new voters loyal. By March, however, COVID-19 was setting the agenda, and Johnson was reluctant to adapt. Hence the foot-dragging, as his first political instinct was to resist the new consensus favoring lockdowns — until it became both politically and economically untenable.

From then on, his Brexit agenda was blown out of the water. Not only was it way down the list of priorities, but even the big spending promises were quickly outmatched by how much the government had to borrow to keep the economy on life support through three national lockdowns, each demanding billions in handouts and support for the National Health Service.

There followed a series of disruptive crises: supply chain issues, labor shortages, and the beginnings of an inflation problem. The government was no longer setting the agenda, but constantly reacting. Johnson’s magic wore off. He was forced to do things he didn’t want to do, and that the Tory right hated, such as impose a windfall tax on energy companies to mitigate a cost-of-living crisis. He also revealed unpopular instincts, such as the drive to suppress wage rises.

For backbenchers, the government seemed adrift, squandering its mandate. For many on the Tory right, Johnson had capitulated by locking down amid serial surges of infections and deaths. His government had been captured by “socialism.” Suddenly, his lying, his incompetence, his corruption, and cronyism were an urgent political problem. Suddenly, short-term polling trends, which could in principle be reversed, necessitated knifing the boss.

There was an element of desperate scapegoating in the Tory coup against Johnson. For a start, Johnson was hardly the only person inculpated by “partygate” or any of the other scandals afflicting the government. Current Tory leader Sunak was among the eighty-three people fined for breaking the law during COVID-19. More importantly, the Tories didn’t have a serious replacement in mind or a viable alternative agenda. The most likely person to succeed Johnson was in fact the person who, catastrophically, did: Liz Truss. Her ascendency had the combined effect of crashing the economy and increasing Labour’s lead over the Tories in less than two weeks.

There is reason to take Johnson seriously when he says he “will be back.” He thrived in the first place in a fatigued, hollowed-out, crisis-ridden democratic system, and excelled at charming gullible pundits and gaming a willingly gamed media system. The system has not become notably less fatigued or crisis-ridden, nor has the media shown any inclination to wise up. In addition, Johnson has shown a good instinct for future trends and an understanding of the virtues of polarization. His outgoing attack on Sunak’s government shows that he expects its fall to give him a way back in. And it might.