Boris Johnson and Donald Trump: could their comebacks be alike too?

Neither likes being away from the spotlight too long

Boris Johnson meeting the then US President Donald Trump for bilateral talks during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, on August 25, 2019. PA Wire
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It was Donald Trump himself who drew the comparison, and he meant it as a great compliment. He described Boris Johnson as Britain’s version of himself, although in a slightly weird and ungrammatical Trumpish way. He called him “Britain Trump”. The comparison seemed apt, for all kinds of reasons. Both men were – are – slightly overweight, blond haired, and with what might be called, complex personal lives. Both are rule breakers. And both, in different ways, have damaged the very different constitutions of their countries.

The US has a written constitution, which you can read online. The UK famously does not have a written constitution, although it is rooted in all kinds of written documents, which theorists trace back to the Magna Carta. There is, however, no one codified document or British basic law. But both the US and UK constitutions have expected norms of behaviour for those in power.

There is no constitutional necessity in the US for the loser of a presidential election to concede gracefully. Mr Trump not only refused to concede, he still refuses to admit that he lost. But until Mr Trump, conceding gracefully had been generally “normal” behaviour in the US. There is no absolute rule about prime ministers resigning in the UK if they are caught out lying or breaking laws, but, again, it has generally been considered a norm that a prime minister would obey. The reason these comparisons between the rule breaking or rule-bending of Mr Trump and Mr Johnson may seem appropriate now is because we are about to enter the post-Johnson era in the UK.

TOPSHOT - Artists put the finishing touches to wax figures Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump as Madame Tussauds prepares to reopen its doors to the public on July 30, 2020 following the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions in England. / AFP / Tolga Akmen

A new prime minister, probably Liz Truss, will emerge next month. And so what will Mr Johnson do? Does the way Mr Trump has handled defeat offer some clues? After all, Mr Trump constantly appears to assert the idea of a comeback. Banned from his favourite means of communication with Americans, Twitter, he founded his own social media operation called Truth Social. He has continued to court the Trump faithful and, depending on your views, continues to divide the Republican party or continues to offer it salvation. The Republican former vice president Dick Cheney, whose daughter, Liz, is in a bitter battle to remain Republican Senator from Wyoming against a Trump insurgency, says: “In our nation’s 246 year history there has never been an individual who is a greater threat to our Republic than Donald Trump.”

Mr Johnson, on the surface, does not seem to be such a threatening figure within Britain, although he does remain divisive within the Conservative party. Mr Johnson pushed out talented MPs such as Dominic Grieve, David Gauke and others, because they could not stomach his “rule breaking” leadership and had different views on Brexit.

So what will Mr Johnson do next? He’s 58 years old and unlike Mr Trump he will not be spending more time on the golf course. Again, unlike Mr Trump, Mr Johnson has young children and a relatively new wife. But very much like Mr Trump, Mr Johnson appears to have a deep psychological need to be the centre of attention. Both men bear out that famous quote from Oscar Wilde that: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

We can agree that Mr Johnson will continue to be talked about. That wish will be granted. But how? He is supposed to be writing a book about Shakespeare. His previous literary effort on Winston Churchill was not merely slated but ridiculed by historians. Nevertheless, a Shakespeare book would presumably bring in some much needed cash for Mr Johnson’s young family. He might return to the Telegraph newspaper as a columnist. And he will certainly be in demand as a commentator on TV and radio, and as a speaker on the international celebrity circuit where six figure fees for a speech are common.

But here is the question that will continue to resonate within the Conservative party: will Mr Johnson wish to remain an MP, and wish to be an active voice in the politics of the UK? Could he, like Mr Trump, ponder some kind of comeback? His parliamentary seat in the London suburbs might be tricky to defend. He continues to face inquiries as to his behaviour.

The American writer F Scott Fitzgerald in a famous line noted that “There are no second acts in American lives,” although plenty of American politicians, including Bill Clinton, have proved otherwise. Mr Clinton famously called himself the “Comeback Kid.” Mr Trump has, in a sense, never really gone away. Mr Johnson, who is currently on holiday, may himself still be unclear what the future holds. But as we have noted repeatedly with Mr Johnson, character is destiny and his character is to seek attention. If the Donald Trump parallel holds, then having Mr Johnson shouting from the sidelines may grab the headlines, but it will not be good news for British politics nor for the Conservative party and not for his successor either.

Published: August 10, 2022, 9:00 AM