Boris Johnson makes me grateful the UK is a monarchy

If Britain had a presidency, the 'Johnsonian era' would have been far more damaging

A protester holds a sign showing then UK prime minister Boris Johnson in front of the entrance to Downing Street in London in April 2022. AP Photo
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Despite the mess surrounding Boris Johnson, he may have performed a great service to the UK.

His rise and fall should remind us that there are advantages in the country being a constitutional monarchy rather than electing a president as head of state. Mr Johnson might have become that person – “Britain’s Trump” – as former US president Donald Trump himself once suggested. And so for all the chaos in Downing Street, the Johnson debacle reminds us that he was “only” the British prime minister, responsible to parliament.

I say “only” although the Johnson-inspired political pantomime has itself been serious and damaging, causing problems for months to come, especially for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Yet none of this compares to the damage Mr Trump continues to inspire in the US. True, Mr Johnson – just like Mr Trump – claims there is a “witch-hunt” against him. But those who ended Mr Johnson’s parliamentary career include members of his own political party. The witch-hunt idea makes little sense.

The obvious truth is that while Mr Johnson is his own biggest fan, he is also his own worst enemy. His lying and betrayal of those who trusted him are legendary. His career trajectory is familiar. He began as a journalist, yet was dismissed from The Times newspaper for lying. He worked for the Conservative party and was dismissed by the former Conservative leader Michael Howard … for lying. He became a Brexit campaigner and famously lied during the 2016 campaign about the benefits of Brexit. Finally as prime minister he was (for all but his most ardent fan club) disgraced for, once more, lying, this time to parliament.

The common thread of deceit is obvious. And yet Mr Johnson’s rise and fall remind us that the UK’s imperfect democracy still has its strengths.

King Charles is not as entertaining as Johnson. For that small mercy, we should rejoice

One strength is that Mr Johnson was investigated by a cross-party committee of parliament in which the majority of members are Conservatives. The process worked. The less welcome news is that his decades of very well-known untrustworthiness did not prevent Mr Johnson’s rise to the top in the first place.

He undermined two predecessors – David Cameron and Theresa May. He then undermined himself, and now appears set on undermining Mr Sunak too. And so if we congratulate ourselves that in the end the British “system” seems to have worked, we need also to ask why it failed for so long.

Why did someone so obviously unsuited for the office of prime minister ever get into Downing Street? Why – when Mr Johnson’s lying was well known – did the Conservative party pick him to be mayor of London, as an MP, as a cabinet minister and ultimately as party leader? Why did so many journalists who knew how untrustworthy Mr Johnson really was, give him a free pass?

My suspicion is that his serious shortcomings were tolerated because Mr Johnson was always entertainingly “newsworthy”. He was the perfect communicator, able to cut through the blizzard of information surrounding us all. That continues. Mr Johnson has earned £5 million ($6.4 million) in six months, even though he is often photographed jogging in ancient sports kit or making speeches in crumpled suits as if his clothing consists mostly of rejects from a charity shop.

Perhaps his repeated appearances on British newspaper front pages bear out Oscar Wilde’s maxim that “the only thing in life worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. As a result, Mr Sunak endures a continuing Johnson problem. That’s best solved by emulating the great Conservative party heroine from the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher often suggested that Conservative values included taking personal responsibility and being loyal to each other.

Mr Sunak could remind us that Mr Johnson is exactly the opposite of that. Everything is always someone else’s fault and he expects loyalty from others yet no one expects the same from him. He split the country over Brexit. He has split the Conservative party over his behaviour. And for some in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson splits the United Kingdom, a divider not a uniter.

It’s true that under his leadership the Conservative party won the December 2019 general election. It’s also true that he still claims he “got Brexit done”. But few British people think Brexit has been a success. And as the veteran pollster Peter Kellner repeatedly points out, Mr Johnson’s 2019 landslide of seats came from a minority of the votes cast (43.6 per cent) and in fact his supposed “popularity” ratings were minus 20 per cent. He won because his opponent, the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, was even more unpopular, at about minus 40 per cent.

As to the future, Mr Johnson returns to his old trade, as a newspaper columnist. His roguish personality appeals to some. It appals others. But in a world in which democracies are endangered by demagogues, we should be thankful because a "President Johnson" would have been far worse than “Prime Minister Johnson”. Instead, our head of state is Charles III, a constitutional monarch with limited powers.

King Charles is not as entertaining as Mr Johnson. For that small mercy, we should rejoice.

Published: June 21, 2023, 7:00 AM