The announcement of British prime minister Boris Johnson’s pending resignation on July 7 came as a surprise to few, as demissions from some 50-plus members of his government made clear that Johnson’s swansong had come along. His premiership, which will last a shade over three years when all is said and done, may be spoken well of in the future: the United Kingdom successfully left the European Union, navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, and offered solid support to President Volodymyr Zelensky as storm clouds formed over Ukraine.
Yet these successes, laudable as they may be, are not Johnson’s to claim. Indeed, history may very well evaluate Johnson as neither a strong conservative nor a commendable prime minister. Though the functionaries around him managed the affairs of the Johnson Government fairly well, the frontman of the government proved to be the weakest link in a Conservative government with a concrete national mandate.
In his final months as Prime Minister, Johnson gained an undeniable reputation as a shady operator. Let us consider the “Partygate” scandal, in which Johnson and senior government members were feted while the rest of Britain remained under lockdown conditions. His response to the revelation of lockdown parties was eellike; at various points, he denied having attended unlawful parties, denied knowing he was at a party, denied knowing if the party was against the rules his administration set forth, and ultimately denied that he lied about illegally held parties.
The point of this critique is not to judge whether the lockdown conditions were warranted; it is, rather, to judge whether Johnson broke the rules that his administration set. Much like with California Governor Gavin Newsom, a preponderance of evidence concludes that Johnson did. What sets his situation apart from Newsom are the conventions in place. In the House of Commons, any member who knowingly lies to or misleads Parliament is expected to resign. Johnson misled Parliament for months and now faces the rightful consequence for his intransigence.
The scandal that broke the camel’s back was Johnson’s treatment of Chris Pincher, a Conservative MP whom he appointed as a government whip, even as Johnson knew about allegations of inappropriate touching against him. After initial denials, Johnson eventually admitted that he was aware of the allegations at the time he appointed Pincher in February 2022. This final act of dishonesty is what prompted mass resignations among government members from July 5–7.
These ethical blunders alone are enough to castigate Johnson and land him in the doghouse of failed politicians. They are not the only mars on his legacy, however; he’s been coy about numbering how many children he has, and illegally prorogued parliament to quell debate on Brexit. His political opportunism has now encountered an insurmountable blunder.
Though some of the greatest Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom came from the Conservative Party—Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Harold Macmillan—it is hardly a surprise that Johnson will not join this pantheon. While these greats navigated domestic and international issues while maintaining the dignity that befits the high ministerial office, Johnson failed. He acted with dishonesty at nearly every turn, and now faces the Nixon-esque legacy of a resigned head of state. One can only hope that Johnson’s successor, as Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, may rise from his ashes and restore popular trust in a fracturing Britain.