Boris Johnson: the man who would be 'world king' bows out - for now

Scandal and deceit ended his tenure as UK prime minister after he starred on the international stage

Former British prime minister Boris Johnson delivering a speech in 2020. His three years in power involved the political giant of electoral campaigns being dogged by scandals. PA
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In early November, Boris Johnson edged closer towards his childhood ambition of becoming “world king”.

The blond-haired colossus of new conservatism had strong-armed nations into signing up at Glasgow’s Cop26 conference to global zero carbon targets.

A few months earlier he had hosted G7 leaders in Cornwall, the Covid-19 pandemic had been defeated, Brexit had seemingly been done, and he towered over Westminster politics with an indomitable 80-seat majority.

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The baton will be handed over in what has unexpectedly turned out to be a relay race. They changed the rules halfway through but never mind that now.
Boris Johnson

Being Britain’s prime minister, the New York-born politician may have thought, was “just swell”.

Everything was going so well that he could confidently board a private jet for the 400-mile trip back from Glasgow to a party in London and weather the jibes of hypocrisy over carbon profligacy.

It was a curious twist that the venue he visited at the apogee of this premiership was also the place that provided the catalyst for its downfall. It was during an informal dinner at the Carlton Club with former fellow journalists from The Daily Telegraph that the issue of sanctions over Owen Paterson for abusing lobbying rules was raised.

Mr Patterson faced a 30-day suspension as an MP for “egregious” breaches of lobbying rules. The former Cabinet minister’s close friends were outraged at the investigation, particularly as his wife Rose had only recently taken her own life.

The next morning, on November 3, Tory MPs were ordered to vote against the suspension, significantly undermining the parliamentary standards committee’s authority. There was great disquiet, so much so that Downing Street reversed the policy. But the damage had been done.

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Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough. And I will be offering this Government nothing but the most fervent support.
Boris Johnson

The newspaper that had broken the story on Mr Johnson’s private jet flight, The Mirror, was then pivotal in exposing the Partygate scandal of lockdown parties in Downing Street.

Initially, the reports were brushed off by Number 10’s press office as left-wing nonsense.

Mr Johnson also dismissed the allegations in Parliament — something for which he is now being investigated for misleading MPs — but the denials came to an abrupt end with the appearance of a leaked video a week after the Mirror story.

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I’m proud to have discharged the promises I made to my party when you were kind enough to choose me. Winning the biggest majority since 1987, the biggest share of the vote since 1979.
Boris Johnson

It showed Allegra Stratton, the Downing Street press secretary, standing at the same podium where Mr Johnson had made his pandemic lockdown announcements conducting a mock press conference and joking about parties in Number 10.

The evidence was utterly damning. Ms Stratton resigned and Mr Johnson apologised to MPs, despite claiming rules had still been followed.

Whoever was leaking the incriminating information was clearly unconvinced by the contrition. Pictures emerged of drinks parties in Downing Street’s Rose Garden and of a party on April 16, 2021, the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. The image of Queen Elizabeth II in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, sitting alone, dressed in black, jarred terribly with the thought of a party on the same night in Downing Street.

Boris Johnson giving his constituency victory speech at the peak of his power at the 2019 General Election. But scandals in office saw his power drain away. PA

A Cabinet Office inquiry led by the senior civil servant Sue Gray was then overtaken by a belated Metropolitan Police investigation, with 300 Downing Street photographs of alleged lockdown breaches as evidence.

If it was a game of Russian roulette, it then appeared that five of the six chambers of the revolver were loaded, with a fatal bullet for Mr Johnson’s premiership just one spin away.

On April 13 this year, it was announced that Mr Johnson had been issued with a fixed penalty fine of £100 ($115) for breaching lockdown rules. This made him the first British prime minister to be punished for breaking the law in office.

A month later, Ms Gray published her report into the party culture at Downing Street, describing vomit on walls and wine stains on carpets.

Throughout this period, a number of civil servants and advisers had resigned from Number 10, with the prime minister announcing several resets and clear-outs of “senior management".

It had appeared that Mr Johnson's ability to defy political gravity, breaking the rules without paying the price, would continue unhindered.

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Above all thanks to you, the British people, to the voters for giving me the chance to serve.
Boris Johnson

A crucial potential survival date was June 23, when there were two by-elections; one in the strong Tory seat of Tiverton in Devon and one in Wakefield, a crucial northern Labour “red wall” seat the Conservatives had remarkably taken in the 2019 election landslide.

Both were lost by considerable margins. For MPs, Mr Johnson’s glowing appeal to the electorate had conclusively lost its lustre.

By happy coincidence, however, on June 24 their leader was in Rwanda at the start of a week-long overseas trip, taking in a G7 summit in Bavaria and a Nato meeting in Madrid.

His gambit of using public amnesia to forget wrongdoings appeared to have been successfully employed.

But while he was away, his friend and deputy chief whip Chris Pincher went to the Carlton Club, drank considerably and allegedly molested two men.

At first, Downing Street felt dismissing Mr Pincher from his ministerial post would prove sufficient to contain the scandal. But then, after pressure from MPs, he was removed from his position.

On returning to England, Mr Johnson denied that he had known about Mr Pincher’s alleged past indiscretions when he was a Foreign Office minister and Mr Johnson was foreign secretary.

Shortly after 8am on July 5, Lord Simon McDonald, who was the chief civil servant during Mr Johnson’s Foreign Office tenure, launched an eviscerating attack on BBC Radio 4 that destroyed the prime minister’s integrity.

Lord McDonald said he had personally briefed Mr Johnson on Mr Pincher’s indiscretions in 2019. He added that he had an obligation to come forward so that the truth was known.

Within 10 hours, the first Cabinet resignation was announced by Health Secretary Sajid Javid, followed 10 minutes later by Chancellor Rishi Sunak. This opened the floodgates for resignations from almost 60 ministers.

Two days after Lord McDonald’s intervention, Mr Johnson offered his own unapologetic resignation, blaming the “herd instinct” of his MPs for forcing him out.

Outside Downing Street, he articulated the first chapter in elevating his legacy, which history will pick over for its own legitimacy.

Getting “Brexit done” was an election-winning slogan that secured his 80-seat majority in 2019. Alas, Brexit does not quite appear completed with the damaging fallout from the Northern Ireland Protocol very much a looming danger.

The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic was initially considered woeful by many, but the government’s ability to roll out the first mass vaccination programme was significant. However, much of this was due to the UK being a global leader in life sciences innovation.

Finally, there was Ukraine, which for a while appeared to save Mr Johnson’s political career temporarily, subsuming the Partygate scandal.

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If Putin thinks he can succeed by blackmailing or bullying the British people then he is utterly deluded.
Boris Johnson

Mr Johnson and his officials could take credit for having the prescience in late 2021 to begin heavily arming Ukraine with anti-tank missiles.

He led the international effort to avert Russian aggression, making the point that many western powers look to Britain for affirmation on military operations.

But the war in Ukraine’s legacy of spiralling energy costs and inflation makes his successor’s job exceptionally fraught.

Mr Johnson’s term has certainly proved a stress test to the British constitutional “good chap” arrangement, where senior politicians are merely expected to do the honourable thing.

But while the constitution has been bruised, unlike the former US president Donald Trump’s tenure it has not been bloodied by a siege on Parliament.

Instead, Mr Johnson ended his final parliamentary appearance as prime minister with the words “hasta la vista, baby” — hinting at a comeback. Given that the former author will pen his own historical record, that cannot be dismissed.

Updated: September 06, 2022, 9:24 AM
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