Boris Johnson’s political death should have happened a decade ago when, as London Mayor, he agreed to take part in a stunt from which any other politician would have fled.
On a visit to promote a newly opened adventure park, he allowed himself to be harnessed to a zipline on which he inelegantly descended with a Union Jack in each hand. The line had been poorly tensioned causing Johnson’s portly form to come to an undignified stop someway short of the gantry from which he was to make his escape. He hung there for a full ten minutes until a ladder arrived, looking “like a damp towel slung over a washing line on a soggy day”, according to one spectator.
A lesser politician’s career might have ended right there. Johnson, however, seems incapable of embarrassment.
The incident only enhanced the persona that was to win him a landslide in the 2019 UK General Election: part patriot and part buffoon, Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx fused into a single dishevelled and corpulent form.
Humour and self-deprecation were among Johnson’s most powerful political tools. They offered some immunity from attack, since it is inflicting a serious wound on a man who doesn’t take himself seriously. It allowed him to stand apart from formulaic politics.
Yet political longevity demands honesty and fair dealing. “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made,” said Groucho Marx, and Johnson, we now know, could only fake it for so long. Over time, a hole appeared where his principles should have been.
It is hard to blame him for breaking the cruel and ineffective coronavirus laws that Britain introduced, in which single people were condemned to solitude, the faithful were forbidden to congregate and businesses pushed to the wall.
It is hard not to conclude, however, that a true conservative would not have passed those laws in the first place. He would have weighed the supposed health benefits against the conservative commitment to the freedom of informed individuals to shoulder risk. A conservative would have recognised that the social fabric is strengthened by love for one’s neighbour rather than coercion.
There was nothing obviously conservative about Johnson’s heavily redistributive economic policy, nor his climate and energy policy which has forced more than three million Britons into so-called fuel poverty according to the government’s own figures.
Britons who invested their hopes in Johnson as the champion of the outsiders, the leader who was prepared to confront the establishment over Brexit and reinvigorate national pride, are entitled to be disappointed.
Getting Britain out of Europe was never going to be enough to win another election, any more than winning World War 2 could save Winston Churchill at the 1945 UK General Election. What was needed was a vision for the future a little closer that of Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative leader who listened to the voices in the provinces, Britain’s forgotten people, and stared down the metropolitan elite.
Johnson shared Thatcher’s iron will in defending Britain’s interests abroad and standing by its allies in the cause of freedom. He is credited with putting some backbone into President Joe Biden in the support of Ukraine. He was instrumental in establishing the AUKUS alliance giving Australia access to nuclear submarine technology. And, of course, there is Brexit to anchor what is a substantial legacy.
At home, however, he will be remembered as an unserious leader who appeared driven by a desire to be popular for its own sake. For a politician, the desire to be liked by everyone is a fatal flaw, as Thatcher pointed out on more than one occasion.
“If you just set out to be liked, you will be prepared to compromise on anything at anytime, and would achieve nothing,” Thatcher once said.
There is, perhaps, no better explanation for the brevity of Johnson’s term in office nor the disappointment felt by those of us who hoped for something more consequential and, dare we say, a little more recognisably conservative.