Boris Johnson is having a very, very bad week. The British conservative leader was expected to cling to power after narrowly surviving a no-confidence referendum organized by his own party last month. That vote was put forward after he was caught lying about attending a party that violated COVID safety precautions, a controversy dubbed “Partygate.” But it turns out it was another scandal that got him a few weeks later. An uproar over drunken groping by an official led to scores of Johnson’s ministers abandoning their posts this week—and forced Johnson to announce on Thursday that he will resign.
The news made for a breathless week in Britain, and at least for some of us, a very confusing one in America. Why was this the moment Johnson finally went down? Why all the resignations now, and not before? Why were reporters interviewing a cat? Just how British is all of this? Esther Webber, a senior U.K. correspondent for Politico Europe, kindly agreed to explain everything over the phone in between her dispatches from the British political apocalypse. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: OK, Boris Johnson is resigning. I understand that much. But what the hell is going on over there? Please start from the beginning—of this scandal at least.
Esther Webber: It’s funny. It seems sudden. I think what all people here have said is that it’s happened slowly, and then very quickly, because there have been huge questions over Boris Johnson’s leadership for at least the last six months. This has mainly been related to the situation with the Partygate scandal, where he was found to have been involved in at least one party in Downing Street that broke the COVID rules that everyone else had followed. People were really angry about that. That caused some questions within his party about whether he should continue as leader. He then had another severe knock a couple of weeks ago when we had a couple of byelections for individual seats where two of his MPs had to stand down, and there was this whole midterm reelection. The conservatives lost. People in Boris Johnson’s party were thinking, “Is he the right person to lead us anymore? Can he really command a following?”
What happened most recently to kind of spark off the last week of madness, a senior member of his government was accused of sexual assault. The member denies the allegations. But then what came to light was that Boris Johnson had been made aware of previous concerns about this guy but still allowed him to have one of the top jobs in government. I think that was really a trigger point for a lot of people in his party. That caused them to question his judgment, but also his ability to be honest with them.
Boris has had a lot of scandals that he’s survived. How did this one become fatal?
He’s no stranger to scandal. These things follow him around. And to some extent they have in the past been priced in to the way people see him, both voters and his own party. People will say, “that’s Boris,” or “Boris will be Boris.” I think the reason his party was always willing to do that is that he was perceived as having this broad appeal that compensated for his flaws. And then with the recent byelections all going against the conservatives, I think that really gave them pause for thought and to think, “Is he a drag?” A lot of his MPs have really concluded over the past weeks that he is a drag on the party. And that has helped tip them from maybe seeing Partygate as a background issue or a secondary issue into him losing their confidence.
Compared to the previous scandals, this last one doesn’t strike me as the worst one.
That’s fair. And it’s something I’ve heard, particularly from people outside the U.K. I think it’s interesting because partly you can’t explain why this was the thing. It seems to have been a drip, drip effect. The scandals have dominated the news and every aspect of his leadership for the last six months. He hasn’t been able to shake it off. And that has seen him kind of gradually drain away his strength and his ability to kind of speak directly to voters. I think that has damaged him.
I think also there’s a certain thing about hypocrisy in this country. It’s something people take really, really seriously. They hate it. This idea of him not following the rules that he was setting for other people was really distressing and has cut deep with a lot of people.
There’s also something intangible. You can’t really explain when or why it happens. It’s kind of like suddenly, the magic is gone. And once you lose that, it’s really difficult to get it back.
Boris is not really gone yet, right?
The rules around getting rid of a leader are tough enough for anyone even here to understand. The fact that this all rests with the Conservative Party rather than voters I think is quite hard for some people to understand. His resignation doesn’t mean he’s going anywhere straight away. He’s agreed with the cabinet that he will now remain in post until October, which is when the handover will happen. Some people are not very happy about that. Just because he’s announced he’s resigning, we haven’t seen the back of him yet.
I have spent the week watching British people freak out over each new resignation from Boris’ cabinet, just totally glued to it. How did that unfold?
It was quite incredible. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen covering politics over the last 10 years, just the scale. It began with Sajid Javid, the health secretary, resigning quite unexpectedly. That was on Tuesday early evening. I think part of the reason for that is conservative MPs tried to move against Boris Johnson before. Just last month, in June, they held a confidence vote in him and he won. And the rules say that then you can’t have another vote like that for another year. And so people were saying, “If there’s going to be an attempt to remove him, it’s going to have to come from the cabinet. It’s going to have to come from his top team to take a stand and say, ‘We can’t put up with this anymore.’” And it seems like that is the conclusion Sajid Javid reached on Tuesday.
And then it was really a kind of domino effect from there. Sajid Javid resigned around 6 p.m. in the evening. He was followed 10 minutes later by the chancellor, the prime minister’s right-hand man. That was a huge deal, maybe even more so than the first resignation. And then there was a sort of trickle that evening. And then when it became clear that Johnson still wanted to stay, that was when it turned into a cascade on Wednesday where we had I think some 40 people resigning. It just kept on coming throughout the day. I think the last one was like 11 p.m. last night.
They wanted to make his position impossible, to force his hand, because he seemed to be so determined to cling on. The case he was making to stay was something a lot of people were saying was quite un-British—more American in the style of a presidential system—because he kept talking about his mandate he had been given by the British people in the last election where 14 million voted for him.* And a lot of people here were saying, “Well, hang on, in our system, we don’t vote for a person. We vote for the party.” And he clearly didn’t have that support from his party anymore.
Is this kind of political torture important to British governance?
I was speaking to an American colleague on Tuesday, and they were marveling at the torture-y nature of the scandals in this country that seem, I don’t know, kind of small fry. It’s not like embezzling or bugging your opponent or anything like that. But I think there’s an element of predictability about all of this, the fact that the country elected Boris Johnson knowing about his disregard for the rules and they’ve ended up punishing him because of it.
I think my favorite British moment was even when all of this was kicking off, all of his ministers are resigning and calling for his head, yesterday Johnson still had to go to face the prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, and then have to go and sit in front of his select committee and talk about road pricing. And that was a really kind of surreal moment, like his whole future is jeopardy, and yet he has to turn up to this committee and talk about really nerdy constable policy stuff.
A lot happened here, but if I’m not mistaken, at one point, the press interviewed the Downing Street cat?
Now that it seems the sun is setting on Boris, do you have a favorite controversy of his? My personal favorite was when he hid in the fridge to escape Piers Morgan.
Oh yeah, hiding in the fridge. One of the things I will always remember was the moment in 2019, a few months after he first became leader, when he decided to prorogue parliament. Parliament was in a total stalemate at that point because they couldn’t agree on the way forward for Brexit. And he decided he was just going to send parliament home basically. He ended up being taken to court over this. The decision went to the Supreme Court, and they ruled that it had been unlawful for him to do that. And that I think sums up the audacity with which he has behaved. And then of course in the election that followed, people gave him a massive majority, and that kind of sums up the way he acts—why he doesn’t follow the rules. He doesn’t do the thing he’s meant to do. And people have quite liked that in the past. It’s appealed to them. And then now suddenly, the joke isn’t funny anymore.
What do you think is the national mood in the U.K. right now? I see a lot of glee mixed with exhaustion.
Exhaustion is probably a good place to start. British politics has been pretty relentless since I would say the Scottish referendum in 2014. That kicked off this extended period of unpredictability, which you saw with the Brexit referendum and then with Boris Johnson being elected. It’s been a crazy time. And I think that is just gonna continue, because now we have a leadership contest over the summer. So there’s no break.
I think we will be split in the country. Lots of people will be really happy to see the end of Boris Johnson. I think among some of his more loyal voters and, particularly among people who voted for Brexit, they will think he has been screwed over by his ministers. Some people are even talking about a comeback for him already. So, we’ll see if he ends up trying again in a few years.
Correction, July 8, 2022: Due to a transcription error, this article originally said Boris Johnson got 40 million votes in the last election. He got 14 million.