LONDON (AP) – Boris Johnson wanted to be like his hero Winston Churchill: the larger-than-life figure who led Britain through a time of crisis. He was brought down by crises of his own making, while a trickle of ethics accusations became a flood that engulfed his government and turned his own party against him.
Johnson agreed to resign on Thursday after the chorus of disapproval within his own party became too much for him to withstand.
The move follows a months-long scandal that saw Johnson fined by police and criticized by an investigative report for allowing illegal parties in his office while Britain was in quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson urged his party and country to “move on” and focus on the UK’s ailing economy and the war in Ukraine. But two major defeats for Johnson’s Conservative Party in special elections and allegations of sexual abuse against a senior party official sealed the fate of a politician whose ability to survive scandal was legendary.
Johnson’s career has always been extreme. He took Britain out of the European Union and led the nation through a global health crisis that threatened his own life, but was ousted after flouting the restrictions he imposed in response to COVID-19. The party revelations in Johnson’s Downing Street office while the country is in lockdown in 2020 and 2021 have sparked outrage and tested the Conservative Party’s patience for its election-winning but erratic leader.
An inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray criticized “failures of leadership and judgment” in Johnson’s government for allowing multiple gatherings in breach of the rules in 2020 and 2021. Dozens of people have been handed police fines, including the prime minister, his wife Carrie Johnson and the Treasury chief Rishi Sunak.
It was, it seems, the final blow to the career of one of the most divisive politicians Britain has ever known. A sympathetic biographer, Andrew Gimson, called Johnson “a man who fights the establishment and wins.” But for former MP Rory Stewart, who ran unsuccessfully against Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019, he was “probably the best liar we’ve ever had as a prime minister”.
Johnson’s election as Conservative leader and Prime Minister in July 2019 rounded off a rollercoaster ride to the top. He has held important posts, including Mayor of London and UK Foreign Secretary, but has also spent periods on the political sidelines following self-inflicted gaffes.
Many times Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was written off as a lightweight who lacked the seriousness needed to be a leader. He sometimes negotiated that impression, cultivating the image of a rumpled populist with a Latin American accent and a streak of blond hair who didn’t take himself too seriously. He once said he had the same chance of becoming prime minister as finding Elvis on Mars.
Elected to the Parliament for the first time in 2001, he moved between journalism and politics for years, becoming known as a newspaper columnist and a guest in TV comedy quizzes.
He sometimes made offensive remarks – calling Papua New Guineans cannibals and comparing Muslim women who wear face veils to “letterboxes” – which sparked outrage and which he dismissed as jokes.
His first major political position, as Mayor of London between 2008 and 2016, suited his talent. He has built a high global profile as the city’s jovial ambassador — exemplified when he got stuck on a zip line during the 2012 London Olympics, waving Union Jacks while suspended in mid-air.
Critics slammed his support for vanity projects, including a little-used cable car and a never-built “garden bridge” over the River Thames, and warned he could not be trusted. As a young journalist, Johnson was fired from The Times of London for making up a quote. He was once filmed promising to give a friend the address of a journalist the friend wanted to beat up. He was fired from a senior conservative position for lying about an extramarital affair.
As the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, he specialized in exaggerated stories about EU waste and rediculous bureaucracy – stories that helped turn British public opinion against the bloc, with far-reaching consequences.
Historian Max Hastings, Johnson’s former boss at the Telegraph, later called him “a man of extraordinary gifts, lacking conscience, principle or scruples”.
It was Brexit that gave Johnson a great chance. Johnson’s leadership of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union helped the “Leave” side secure a narrow victory in the 2016 referendum.
His bullish energy was key to victory. So, critics said, were the lies of the campaign – such as the bogus claim that Britain was sending £350m a week to the EU, money that could instead be spent on the UK’s National Health Service.
The Brexit vote was a triumph for Johnson, but it did not immediately make him prime minister. Theresa May has won the Conservative Party leadership contest and assumed the leadership post.
Johnson had to watch and wait for three years as May struggled to secure a divorce deal acceptable to both the bloc and the British parliament. When she failed, Johnson’s promise to “get Brexit done” won him the prime ministership. In December 2019, he secured the Conservative Party’s largest parliamentary majority since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
His first months in office were full. MPs resisted his Brexit plans and he suspended parliament – until the UK Supreme Court ruled the move illegal. Opponents said it was yet another example of Johnson’s rule-breaking and disregard for the law.
After several delays to the departure date, Johnson achieved his goal of taking Britain out of the EU on January 31, 2020. Yet despite Johnson’s slogan, Brexit was far from “done”, with many issues still to be resolved, including the delicate status Northern Ireland, a constant source of friction between Britain and the bloc.
And then the pandemic came. Johnson initially appeared relaxed about the threat the new coronavirus posed to the UK and was hesitant to impose restrictions on movement and business activities.
He changed course and went into self-isolation in late March 2020, and days later contracted COVID-19 himself, spending several nights in intensive care in a London hospital. He later said that a decision had been made whether to put him on a ventilator.
Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has drawn mixed criticism. A laissez faire politician by nature, he bristled at the need to impose restrictions and was quick to say at the outset that the pandemic would be over in a matter of weeks.
The United Kingdom continued to have one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in Europe and some of the longest quarantines. But the government did one big thing right, it invested early in the development and purchase of vaccines and delivered doses to the majority of the population.
The success of the vaccination brought Johnson an improvement in the polls, but his problems were getting bigger. He faced accusations over money from a conservative donor that he used to renovate his official apartment. And he suffered a major backlash when the government tried to change parliamentary standards rules after an MP was found guilty of illegal lobbying.
The final straw came when details emerged of parties held in Johnson’s office and Downing Street home while the country was under lockdown.
The details were sometimes comical – staff smuggling booze into Downing Street in a casket, a fan’s claim that Johnson was “ambushed with a cake” at a surprise birthday party. But the fury they caused was real. Millions of Britons stuck to the rules, unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals.
Hannah Bunting, a lecturer at the University of Exeter who has studied public trust in politicians, said that in the past voters were “well aware of Johnson’s flaws and that did not diminish his electoral popularity.”
The party’s claims changed that because people could “compare their actions to his,” she said. “Most of us followed the government’s restrictions because we thought it was in everyone’s interest. We made sacrifices to ensure people’s safety.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 gave British politicians and the media more pressing matters to focus on. It brought a reprieve from domestic troubles for Johnson, who has won international praise for his military, financial and moral support for Ukraine. He traveled twice to Kyiv to meet with President Voldimir Zelensky, a trusted and welcome ally.
But special election defeats in June 2022 – one in a district that has voted Conservative for a century – have dogged Conservatives that anger at “partygate” has not died down.
Soon after, Johnson was caught changing his story about how he handled allegations of sexual misconduct by a senior member of his government. The ministers who defended Johnson in every case had had enough. They left the government in droves, leaving Johnson no choice but to resign.
Johnson’s streak of miraculous escapes has finally come to an end.