When he took office in July 2019, Queen Elizabeth II asked her 14th Prime Minister a question that had certainly been causing the monarch a headache for a long time: she could not quite understand “why anyone would actually want this job”. Boris Johnson’s answer has not been handed down – and a good three chaotic, crisis-ridden years later, marked by a triumphant election victory and numerous scandals, the balance of his term in office not only leaves this question unanswered.
Incidentally, the fact that the new head of government divulged this detail of his very first audience to the public was a first indication of the special nature of this politician. What did he care about the convention, according to which weekly meetings between British heads of government and the Queen are subject to strict confidentiality on both sides? Johnson had never bothered with traditional customs or regulations, and at 10 Downing Street he saw no reason to change that.
With snappy remarks and a tousled head of hair that belies a sharp political mind, Johnson made it into office as Brexit Prime Minister. He played an important, perhaps decisive role in the referendum to leave the EU in June 2016. The fact that he showed his country the way out of the Brexit maze is an important achievement – the narrow result had to be implemented in order to pacify the torn nation. As a result, Johnson is still a long way from having “completed” Brexit, as promised during the election campaign. On the contrary, as time goes on, the diverse problems brought about by the British withdrawal from the European unification project are becoming more and more visible.
Johnson’s handling of the corona pandemic is similarly ambiguous. He himself likes to point out – and rightly so – the exemplary, fast British vaccination program and the effective help for companies and citizens. Critics point out that the first lockdown in March 2020 came far too late, with more than 20,000 Britons dead according to serious estimates. In addition, in a panic, the government threw billions around in search of protective clothing, too many of which went into the pockets of scammers and ministerial friends. The numerous lockdown parties then brought the premature end of his term.
Johnson was not a “mini-Trump”, as critics claim, simply because he gave the caring and investment-giving state an important role to play. How this is compatible with traditional conservative values such as disciplined housekeeping and belief in the market has always remained an open question.
The failed prime minister will occupy the imagination of his party friends and the British public for a long time to come, primarily thanks to Boris Johnson himself. Already in the bitter resignation speech at the beginning of July he fueled a silly stab-in-the-back legend. A hard core of Johnson ultras is said to have already formed in the conservative lower house faction, who want to pave the way for the return of their fallen hero. They would have echo in the party: In a recent survey, 51 percent of the members thought his resignation was wrong.
So, will the “Borisconi” phenomenon that former foreign aid secretary and harsh Johnson critic Rory Stewart fears? Like Silvio Berlusconi, who failed after a short term in Italy, the 58-year-old could return to the highest party and government office. But will Johnson’s 2019 electoral alliance of regular voters in the country’s prosperous south and former Labor supporters who are enthusiastic about Brexit still stand?
Perhaps Johnson would rather pursue a lucrative career as a keynote speaker, columnist and author of books such as a long-planned biography of Shakespeare. The outgoing prime minister told his circle of friends that he urgently needs to “earn money”. His successor, Liz Truss, will hope that this task takes all of his attention. Sebastian Borger