Them’s The Breaks: Inside the Fall of Boris Johnson
Britain’s “dispensable” prime minister leaves Downing Street giving off that most British feeling: that life might not be better after the empire.
SAN FRANCISCO—Like maybe Mark Twain quipped of this city, the coldest winter for Boris Johnson appears to be July in London.
“I’m sad to give up the best job in the world,” Prime Minister Johnson said, announcing his departure last week, “But them’s the breaks.” In a moment of humility, of reality, Johnson intoned: “No one is indispensable.”
It was vintage Johnson: head-shakingly charming, leaving the listener wanting more.
Mere days after July 4, members of Britain’s Conservative Party declared independence from their leader. The transition from David Cameron to Theresa May to Johnson to now whoever-the-heck came and went as briskly as the beginning and end of the reigns of perhaps more household names in America: Thatcher. Major. Blair. Brown (who never won an election—losing to Cameron).
They call this Californian rancheria, San Francisco, “Baghdad by the Bay.” Herb Caen meant it endearingly, and penned it before Saddam Hussein, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But it is London in recent years that has cut the figure of Baghdad on the Thames, with its July revolutions. If the old empire were less psycho-spiritually defanged, or to put it in a better light, less violent, the summer coup d'états across the pond would be the stuff worthy of comparison to the summer revolutions of Egypt (to the interest, and perhaps delight, of the country’s legion of Arabists), or even mutinous heyday France (to the revulsion of the country’s Francophobic scribbler class).
Johnson’s newest wife, the millennial Carrie Johnson, had sought to rebrand her husband, especially in the Trump years, as confirmed by a lurid profile by Lara Pendergast. Johnson’s rip-roaring 2019 election was embraced by some national conservatives, but by the Biden years, Johnson was talking up, sort of aimlessly, a more “feminine” future and the imperative to “build back better.”
A former senior Trump administration official once told me that Johnson recoiled privately from comparisons to Donald Trump: The implication being that Johnson regarded himself as an intellect, if not more urbane, while the 45th president was a Sean Hannity viewer, and Manhattan emigree (hey, that doesn't sound so bad).
But the fear for Johnson is the comparison to Trump might have been right all along. Policy, schmolicy. NeverTrumpers and “NeverBorisers” might have had some real things to say about the men’s characters. In the end, whatever their merits, whatever their political trailblazing, in their first (a question mark still) terms in power, the duo ended their time at the top sooner than they might have liked, defined by haters for contradiction on Covid lockdowns, betrayed and betraying senior staffers they seemingly didn’t know well, left to small courts anchored by their third wives.
They won power, but they struggled, and still do struggle, to wield it. As evidenced by the lineup that appears to be willing to take on Trump in the upcoming presidential election, “45” will only become “47” in a show of brute and open force. He has failed to intimidate challengers in his own party, and Johnson has failed to intimidate a mutiny.
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Taken out by putative anger over a series of scandals (the last straw being a groping brouhaha centered around an M.P. literally called “Pincher”), Johnson will stay on in a caretaker government through early September. That’s caused a little bit of intrigue in speculation that Johnson might not actually be going, but his ex-wizard (and another ex-friend) Dominic Cummings says Johnson is merely creating a “stab-in-the-back” narrative for the entertainment of the readers of his future columns (Johnson represented this constituency well: a journalist who got to the top).
The weak favorite as of now for the succession is Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, who until recently was apparently mulling moving to California, like I have. Sunak did business school in the Bay Area (and has been pictured in a tech bro “STANFORD” sweatshirt, to the delight of detractors), and owns a hacienda in Santa Monica. Does he even fully want this job? As pointed out by Twitter genius “Populism Updates,” Sunak is both not popular, and also separately singed by scandal. It doesn't make a lot of sense.
For the all-famed Orwellian insistence on a putative “coherence” in that country, the United Kingdom increasingly seems to not have any.