The implosion of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in some ways puzzling. To some the only mystery is why it took so long for him to succumb to his arch-enemy, namely himself. To others the mystery is why, after getting away with scandalous conduct for so long, it finally and suddenly brought him down. We say that, for better or worse, he got away with slippery public conduct and scandalous personal behaviour as long as he apparently stood for limited government and the common man. It was when he ditched them for his green obsession he became toxic, to voters and then his colleagues. The Boris of Brexit and deregulation might have ridden even this one out. The Boris of the Green New Deal didn’t stand a chance.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, to give him his full title, always was a charming rogue. He long refused to say how many children he had by various women, not something a person does when all the kids are in the annual Christmas photo. He was transparently ambitious and unreliable. But he was also engaging, brave, and had a real everyman touch.
Certainly the famous 2009 episode where, as mayor of London, he jumped off his bicycle to save left-wing film director Franny Armstrong from a potentially very serious beating by some hooligans showed him as a characteristic British “have a go” hero. And no other politician could have ziplined into the opening of the 2012 London Olympics (he was then mayor) and come out looking good rather than a Joe Clark/Bob Stanfield klutz.
Voters liked him because, for all his privileges from childhood fox hunting and au pairs to Eton and Oxford, and his unquestioned brilliance, he seemed in a very important way to be one of them, to see the world as they did, to have the common touch and to find himself funny. They also found him funny. And possibly some even admired him because they found his irregularities appealing and would have liked to do similar things themselves if they could. Sexual restraint is nowadays regarded as prudery, even if some journalists, while ignoring the climate issue, did point out that his history of infidelities, and resort to abortion to avoid some of the awkward consequences, could be taken as indicators of selfish unreliability.
At any rate, voters knew. As they knew the more attractive side of his outsized personality. And in 2019 he won a landslide, including breaching the famous Labour “Red Wall”, in large part because of his determination to push through the “Brexit” the people had voted for and to do it in defiance of elite scorn. Britons in the Midlands, Northern England and parts of Wales who had long been unshakeable Labour voters because they felt left out and believed that party stood for them had been strongly pro-Brexit and Johnson delivered.
He did all these things, it should be emphasized given his ultimate fate, while reeling from scandal to scandal and breaking promises one after another. Some of his “scandals”, like quoting Kipling while visiting Myanmar, were just part of his non-PC appeal before PC was relabeled “woke”. And perhaps cheating on your wife is no longer considered bad form. But others were very real, from ignoring planning regulations to cronyism and expense irregularities. And such pledges as that he would not run for Parliament while still mayor were typically worthless.
Still, voters knew their man, the good and the bad. Or so they thought. Even his missteps on COVID, and his characteristic personal brush with it, were a mixed bag; hesitation to lock free people down, yes, but also (in Allister Heath’s wistful words) “It gave Johnson a taste for unlimited spending and state power from which he never recovered.” And the lavish parties held in defiance of the restrictions that were ultimately imposed were a serious blow to his image. But what really did him in was his aggressive climate change agenda.
It was global warming, and the supposed need radically to restructure Britain’s economy and psychology, that swept aside his principles and instincts on big government. And then in pushing through one utopian climate measure after another Johnson ignored common sense and the plight of ordinary people unable to afford energy bills, and the worm turned.
The actual scandal that brought him down was appointing as Chief Whip a man known for sexual harassment. It was a very serious matter and we in Canada can only envy those nations where such things still matter. But while most media accounts ignored climate policy in explaining his political demise (for instance Simon Jenkins’ political obituary in the Guardian, while his colleague Jonathan Freedland called it the ideal opportunity to reverse Brexit) as did his Wikipedia entry, the Chris Pincher affair was quite minor by Johnson’s standards.
The Economist, calling on him to resign shortly before he bowed to the inevitable, argued that “He lacked the moral fibre to take hard decisions for the national good if that threatened his own popularity. He also lacked the constancy and the grasp of detail to see policies through. And he revelled in trampling rules and conventions.” But as to the latter, who doesn’t nowadays? Bank ads emphasize non-conformity. Plus he’s far from the only politician lacking constancy and a grasp of detail, as Canadians can readily attest. But on the former, he did take hard decisions “for the national good” in the form of ruinous climate policies that, in fact, threatened his popularity.
If scandals could have brought him down, they would have long ago. What had changed by June 2022 was that the public no longer thought he was their champion and one of them. And the key to that change was going all-in on climate alarmist policy.
The Express sort of got it, saying “Fears Boris Johnson quitting could spell end for net zero as green Tories fear worse PM”. But it patronizes those who think Johnson bungled by embracing the watermelon philosophy: “One replacement hopeful, Brexiteer Steve Baker, has already vowed to tear up the UK’s green plans, and end the push for new wind energy. However, industry experts have dismissed these suggestions, arguing that the worst impacts [of the] energy crisis could have been softened if the Government had done more before to phase the country into renewable energy.”
The Wall Street Journal saw more clearly, editorializing that “He campaigned from the right but governed from the left. Voters noticed.” And why did he do so? It is not uncommon among ordinary politicians but he was never one of those. As the Journal said, “His ambition was to forge a left-wing conservatism with less focus on prosperity and private entrepreneurship and more on climate change, income redistribution and culture warring.” Climate change. There it is. Possibly influenced by his new and much younger wife (he’s 58, she’s 34 and a climate activist), he embraced big government whole-heartedly on this crucial issue, and from there it was all downhill. For citizens, facing a “cataclysmic” energy crisis this winter, and Johnson.