Boris Johnson’s resignation from parliament is nothing but a good day for British democracy. As prime minister, Johnson tarnished and undermined his own office and other institutions he touched. He announced his departure in a sulky statement ahead of a parliamentary report that is expected to be the most scathing criticism of an ex-prime minister in living memory for misleading the Commons about what he knew about Downing Street parties during the lockdown. By saying he was leaving “for now”, Johnson was alluding to a comeback like that of his hero, Winston Churchill. He shouldn’t get the chance.
Johnson will undoubtedly remain one of the most influential prime ministers in recent history. By sending Britain out of the EU, he changed the country’s political trajectory and fulfilled the wishes of the 52 percent who supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum. But in his egocentrism, his casual disregard for the truth and for the rules and conventions that bind others, his nepotism tendencies and his lack of managerial seriousness and competence, he has damaged his office and the UK’s global reputation.
Partly by pledging to “get Brexit done,” Johnson secured the largest Tory majority in three decades. But he lacked the capabilities to make the exit from the EU a success, or at least in the least damaging way. His bare-bones exit deal prioritized illusory “sovereignty” but maximized the economic blow. Signing Northern Ireland’s trade rules that he clearly did not want to abide by tarnished Britain’s reputation for respect for the law.
Domestically, Johnson undermined confidence in the British government and institutions and made many ministers, civil servants and aides complicit. Attempts to sideline parliament in a sparring match with Brussels puts pressure on the UK’s unwritten constitution. The chaotic handling of Covid-19 has left Britain with the highest number of deaths per million in the G7. Allowing social gatherings on Downing Street that violated rules Johnson himself had written outraged millions.
The House of Commons Privileges Committee is expected to deliver a damning verdict on whether Johnson lied to parliament in allegations about those parties. In calling the commission a “kangaroo court”, some members suggest that Johnson or his allies have challenged its integrity and are guilty of contempt of parliament. Following polarized US politics, tighter security arrangements have been put in place for the commission following reports of threats from the public.
Like US Republicans did with Donald Trump, too many conservative MPs initially chose Johnson because they saw him as a winner who could connect with another electorate. Unlike the Republicans, the Conservative party did a good job of shrugging him off, as enough MPs eventually came to the conclusion that he hurt their prospects.
Johnson now has a vested interest in the failure of the Conservatives in the next general election. A defeat of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would give him the opportunity to regain leadership, if he could secure a seat, in a vote among party members – or at least claim to have been dusted only with electoral stardust. Johnson’s acolyte Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested barring the ex-prime minister from running again as a Conservative would spark a “civil war” in the party.
But a mooted broader mutiny following Johnson’s resignation on Friday spiraled out of control, and it makes no sense for Sunak to make peace with a man he can never trust. When Johnson tries to run like Tory again, Sunak has to block him. The former Prime Minister has had his chance and lost it. A second act would not be in the interest of his party – or the country.