Finally, after cementing his position as one of the most reviled prime ministers of the modern age and seeing the largest number of MPs ever to walk out of a cabinet in history walk out of his, Boris Johnson resigned last week. Or he sort of did. He will, apparently, linger like a bad smell until September, when whoever wins the Tory party leadership race comes into office.
Here in London, I wondered about what his resignation speech might sound like. Probably some pompous Latin turns of phrase, some references to Shakespeare’s more famous history plays, but in credit to him perhaps also a somber acknowledgement of the great tragedy of the pandemic that his premiership coincided with, maybe even a recognition of his failings on the day that 32 members of his government declared him unfit for office. What actually came out his mouth, as he stood at the lectern with his characteristic shit-eating grin firmly in place, was that he was proud of winning the largest Conservative majority since 1987 in the 2019 election, proud of how he handled the pandemic and that he had wanted to stay in the job but “them’s the breaks.”
“Them’s the breaks”: the words of a man who has never taken anything seriously in his life. But this is what I should have expected. Johnson is a man who has become used to never having to say sorry, failing upward and getting his way. He was a journalist first, sometime editor of the right-leaning magazine The Spectator, and then a Tory MP in the noughties who regularly appeared on the current affairs panel show Have I Got News For You. Here, Johnson began building his signature persona, a bumbling, sardonic jester, a jolly good bloke who couldn’t possibly do anybody any real harm. Then he was mayor of London when the city held the Olympics in 2012, an era that annoying centrists online remember as the last time the U.K. was somewhere you could be proud to be from. Throughout years of “who, me?” about the likelihood of him becoming prime minister—saying things like “my chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive”— Johnson steadily crawled his way up the ladder until he found himself in the job he had wanted since he first walked the halls of Eton College, alma mater of no fewer than 20 prime ministers of the U.K., a good and normal country.
And it has been disastrous. Where even to start with Johnson? His legacy is so long and so dreadful. He will be remembered for hiding in a walk-in fridge from press, spearheading one of the dirtiest general election campaigns in modern history, seeming not to know how many children he has fathered, selling off contracts for COVID testing to Tory party associates who then failed to provide anything like the testing required, trying to promote the women he was sleeping with to government jobs, having his own brother walk out of his cabinet, getting replaced by a melting ice sculpture at a climate crisis debate he refused to show up to, trying to end free school meals for the country’s most vulnerable children, lying about pretty much anything you care to name, wearing a shirt and dress shoes when he goes for a run, leading the campaign to take Britain out of the E.U. that single-handedly drove every person in the United Kingdom insane one way or another, refusing to isolate when he had COVID, writing pieces about how Black people have small brains and saying Muslim women in burqas look like “letter boxes,” being part of a club full of rich boys at Oxford who terrorized local restaurants and homeless people, attending multiple parties during the toughest lockdowns while telling people they could not attend the funerals of their loved ones, insisting on deporting British-Caribbean people who had spent their whole lives in the U.K. having been invited to come and live in the country in the 1960s, and having really bad hair.
Johnson represents everything rotten about the British political system. An elite who climbed to power through school and university connections and managed to leverage Brexit to convince the voting public that he represented their interests. An actor who knew how to manipulate the public’s love of a charming buffoon to clown his way into office. A serial liar, a man without integrity who nonetheless managed to cling to the job through successive pandemic-related scandals because the Tory party did not want to oust him enough, in case it threatened their party’s rule.
It is of course delicious that this man, whose one wish was power, should get the job he slunk around for his whole life and have to do that job during Brexit, the pandemic, and then a cost-of-living crisis, and will now be remembered as one of the country’s worst-ever heads of government. But it’s difficult to properly enjoy Johnson’s downfall, although many are trying hard. Whoever comes next is likely to be worse, in a way, because they’ll be able to put a fresh, acceptable face on the same heinous policies recent Tory governments have gone in for. And Johnson will be fine. My hopes for Johnson’s future are not fit to print, and I suspect they’re way off the mark, anyway. Will he scuttle off and spend his time on campervans and at the more middle-class leaning music festivals like David Cameron, another of the nation’s great wreckers, did after he stepped down? I don’t think so, somehow. He’ll write (or more likely someone will have to write for him) his long-dreaded book about Shakespeare, no doubt followed by a multi-million-dollar deal for a memoir called something like Boris: A Word in Edgeways. He’ll probably return to some cozy right-wing column where he can contribute to the culture wars from the comfort of an armchair while the U.K. burns around him in the fire he lit.
If indeed he does in fact leave office in September. I wouldn’t put it past him to try to cling on, even now.