As Boris’s former boss, I know all too well how inspiring and exasperating he can be

The events leading up to Johnson's resignation are emblematic of his entire career

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves after announcing his resignation, on July 7, 2022. Reuters
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For someone who has based his career on the principle that the normal conventions of politics do not apply to him, the events of the last few days will have been a deeply salutary experience for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Ever since he entered parliament as an MP in 2001, Mr Johnson has ploughed his own furrow, spurning the opportunity to associate himself closely with any of the many factions and cliques that constitute the modern Conservative Party and preferring instead to devote his efforts on building the so-called “Boris Brand”.

The fact that he has succeeded in building his political reputation by not even using his real name - he is known by his original given name Alexander by close friends and family - is indicative of his single-minded pursuit of creating an entirely separate political persona.

And, for a time, his skillful management of the cult of Boris paid dividends. The two terms he served as Mayor of London between 2008 and 2016 saw him achieve international stardom, not least during the 2012 London Olympics with his bumbling performance on a zip line, when he found himself stranded in mid-air waving a Union Jack, earning him global notoriety.

Mr Johnson’s fame during this period was so pronounced that I recall the French Ambassador to London at the time complaining that, when visiting French dignitaries came to London, there was only one British politician they wanted to see: Boris Johnson.

Even then, Mr Johnson’s astonishing rise to political fame and stardom was not without its setbacks. Early in his parliamentary career the then Conservative leader Michael Howard was obliged to sack him from his post as shadow arts minister and party vice chairman in 2004 after he was accused of lying about having an affair with a colleague at The Spectator, a magazine which he had previously edited.

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For a time, his skillful management of the cult of Boris paid dividends

Mr Johnson’s difficulty with the truth, which has been at the heart of the controversy which has now resulted in his resignation as prime minister, is one of the other, less edifying characteristics that have defined his career, both as a journalist and as a politician.

As his foreign editor at The Sunday Telegraph in the late 1990s, I found Mr Johnson, who was then working as the newspaper’s Brussels correspondent, both inspiring and frustrating in equal measure.

This was the era when he first made a name for himself, writing about the iniquities of the European Commission. He often produced sensational scoops, such as his famous story about the EU issuing an edict in favour of straight bananas, even though, on closer inspection, it turned out not to be quite as Mr Johnson had claimed.

Mr Johnson’s journalist career, though, often relied on the adage “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, and it served him well as he rose to the heights of British political journalism.

And many of the difficulties that he faces today can be said to originate from his unwillingness or inability to provide a truthful or accurate account of events, to the extent that he has succeeded in provoking the biggest political revolt within his own Conservative Party in nearly a century.

The partygate scandal, which laid the foundations for the political crisis that has engulfed Mr Johnson this week, is a case in point. No one has ever accused the Prime Minister of personally organising the series of illegal parties at Downing Street that took place amid the nationwide lockdown imposed throughout Britain during the coronavirus pandemic, and that have resulted in the police issuing a staggering 126 fines, including one to Mr Johnson himself.

The parties were organised by civil servants working in Downing Street, most of whom have since been relieved of their posts, and Mr Johnson was, for the most part, a disinterested bystander at the events.

What got him into trouble was not so much his involvement in the parties but his failure to tell the truth about what had occurred in his own office,  resulting in accusations that he lied to parliament - itself a resignation-worthy offence.

Despite the intense criticism Mr Johnson has attracted over his handling of partygate, it appeared that he had managed to salvage his political career after winning last month’s confidence vote by Conservative MPs in his leadership with a comfortable majority.

His standing had also recently been buoyed by the firm leadership he has demonstrated on the Ukraine issue, playing a key role at last month’s G7 and Nato summits, where he helped to ensure world leaders presented a united front in their support for Ukraine, as well as providing much-needed arms shipments.

But no sooner had he returned from eight days of high level summitry than Mr Johnson’s pathological inability to provide a truthful account of events plunged him once more into another crisis, one from which his reputation is unlikely to recover.

During Mr Johnson’s absence, Chris Pincher, a junior member of the government, submitted his resignation following accusations that he had groped two men at London’s exclusive Carlton gentlemen’s club in Piccadilly. It soon transpired that Mr Pincher had previously been accused of similar offences, including one occasion when he worked with Mr Johnson during the latter’s term as foreign secretary.

Yet, when asked about Mr Pincher’s conduct, Downing Street said Mr Johnson had no knowledge of the MP’s record, a claim that was quickly refuted by the former head of the Foreign Office, Lord McDonald of Salford, who publicly accused Mr Johnson of lying.

The row over the latest accusations surrounding the Prime Minister’s personal integrity has finally ended his premiership, following the largest mass ministerial resignations in nearly a century. More than 40 people in his government, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, quit their posts in protest.

This means that Downing Street has had the highest number of resignations in modern history, breaking the previous record set in 1932, when 11 ministers resigned in protest at a free trade agreement.

The scale of the revolt has meant that, this time, there is no way back for Mr Johnson, and he has been left with no other option but to tender his resignation. Consequently he finds himself another victim of another well-known dictum in British politics, that all political careers ultimately end in failure.

Published: July 07, 2022, 12:36 PM
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