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Boris Johnson was a winner, until he wasn’t

Scandals finally forced the Conservatives to abandon their leader, as Johnson announces he will resign.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces his resignation outside 10 Downing Street on July 7.
Carl Court/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Boris Johnson always seemed to defy political odds.

He went the typical path of the political class — Eton- and Oxford-educated — but sold himself as an outsider and populist man-of-the-people, messy hair and all. He was fired from journalism for fabrication, and his reporting and political careers were marred with scandal after scandal, professional and personal, and sometimes a mix of the two. For some of his supporters, his gaffes and his disregard for the norms added to his appeal.

And he continued to rise: the Conservative mayor of London, a Labour town; a prominent face of the “Leave” campaign that prevailed in the 2016 Brexit referendum; the leader of a party that won a historic majority in 2019, making him the prime minister with the biggest Conservative majority in three decades. As prime minister, he officially took the United Kingdom out of the European Union after years of a divisive Brexit debate.

Those successes helped Johnson defy those political odds — until they couldn’t anymore.

After a dizzying few days of fresh scandals and unprecedented government resignations, the British prime minister announced his resignation Thursday, marking the close of his leadership of the Conservative Party nearly three years after he took on the job.

In the end, Johnson was taken down by someone else’s sex scandal, a minor drama that was only partly of his own making. But this erupted after months of stories about illicit, in-person parties at 10 Downing Street during the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns in England — parties that Johnson originally denied happened, until media reports and investigations proved otherwise. Johnson was fined for violating the Covid-19 restrictions he himself set — along with dozens and dozens of other officials.

Conservatives, then, had already soured on Johnson by the time this latest scandal broke involving sexual misconduct allegations against the government’s chief deputy whip. They saw a backlash in electoral results and poor polling and an escalating cost-of-living crisis, and they ultimately had to make choice.

“That calculation is Johnson — is he a blessing or is he a burden? And if the tipping point is met, he’s more of a burden than a blessing,” said Matt Beech, a professor at the University of Hull and senior fellow at the University of California Berkeley.

Conservatives chose burden, and so they revolted and dispatched with him, not unlike past Conservative prime ministers before him. “The Conservative Party, historically, has been very good at getting rid of leaders who they do not think are going to win the next general election,” said Simon Griffiths, a politics professor at Goldsmiths, University of London. “They’ve been much more ruthless about it than other political parties.”

Johnson himself acknowledged this in his resignation speech, though he declined to take any responsibility for bringing about his own political demise. “The herd instinct is powerful; when it moves, it moves,” Johnson said. “No one is remotely indispensable.”

“I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world,” Johnson added. “But them’s the breaks.”

For now, Johnson remains prime minister until a successor is chosen, a process that will likely conclude sometime in the late summer or early autumn. Some Conservatives see Johnson as too much of a political liability to stick around, even for a few weeks, and want him gone immediately. If that happens — which would be pretty unusual — an interim prime minister would take over until the next leader is selected.

As Johnson departs, there isn’t an obvious successor to replace him, which may be another reason Johnson lasted as long as he did. Plenty of people are likely to put their names forward, but it is still unclear who might emerge as the true frontrunner. Whoever does will say a lot about the future of the Conservative Party and just how much influence Johnson may have had in shaping it, even as it leaves him behind. Them’s the breaks, after all.

Conservatives made a deal that Johnson would deliver on Brexit and win elections. Those requirements no longer apply.

“The reason I have fought so hard in the last few days to continue ... was not just because I wanted to do so, but because I felt it was my job, my duty, my obligation to you to continue to do what we promised in 2019,” Johnson said in his resignation speech on Thursday, outside of No. 10 Downing Street.

In his brief remarks, Johnson cited that historic 2019 election victory; delivering on Brexit; the UK’s navigation of the Covid-19 pandemic, including its vaccine rollout; and the UK’s support for Ukraine against Russia among the achievements of his tenure.

Johnson’s resume is a bit more complicated — an inquiry is examining the UK’s Covid-19 response, Brexit is still very, very messy — but on the top-line things, Johnson succeeded at what Conservatives wanted him to do.

In 2019, he emerged as the frontrunner for Conservative leader following Theresa May’s resignation because he was seen by Conservatives as the best option to deliver Brexit, but also to win supporters back to a party badly battered by the Brexit debates.

Johnson did both. He mounted a stunning victory in 2019 that brought together more traditional Conservatives and new working-class voters who had traditionally voted for Labour (Britain’s center-left party, now in opposition). Sure, Johnson was assisted by then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s unique unpopularity, but 80-seat majorities don’t come around all that often. And while Johnson may have glossed over some of the obstacles to his Brexit approach, the bottom line is he broke the Brexit deadlock that had previously been tearing the country apart and took the United Kingdom out of the European Union.

Partygate tested that bargain. Juicy details of boozy parties aside, the scandal is fairly straightforward: The people in charge of making and enforcing Covid-19 rules were themselves breaking them. Not only that, but much of the country was on extreme lockdown and couldn’t visit family or friends in the hospital, let alone host parties. “The hypocrisy is too obvious there,” Griffiths said.

It also put the rest of the Conservative party in a bind. Members of Parliament and government officials had to twist themselves to defend the prime minister — only to have new revelations emerge that showed Johnson wasn’t being honest. Official ethics investigations and police inquiries proved the media reports were as bad as they seemed.

“I think they can tolerate that if the guy’s a winner,” said Sean Kippin, a lecturer in public policy at the University of Stirling. “But as soon as it starts following through into election results — the polls have been pretty bad for quite a long time — as far as the Conservatives are concerned, it’s a sense that this man is going to drag them down with him.”

As Kippin said, “Boris Johnson’s been known to be all the things that he’s been shown to be for a long time.” But Conservatives were willing to overlook it in Johnson as long as voters could, and as long as Johnson delivered. But the inflation crisis further dampened support for the prime minister. In May, the Conservatives lost hundreds of seats in local elections, a sign that the electorate was moving against Johnson and his party. Even after Johnson survived a no-confidence vote in June, the party lost two seats in off-cycle elections to replace Conservative MPs. One, in Tiverton and Honiton, reversed a Conservative majority of 24,000. If Conservatives needed a sign that Johnson shouldn’t lead them through the next election, this was probably it.

“The biggest driving force behind this decision is the conviction of most Conservative MPs that they cannot win the next election with Boris Johnson as leader,” said Roger Mortimore, professor of public opinion and political analysis at King’s College London. “I think up to this point many of them have been hanging on essentially because Boris does have this past record of pulling improbable things out of the hat. He has a very enviable record of winning elections that other politicians would not have been expected to win.”

Johnson probably held on a bit longer than another Conservative leader because there was a sense that if anyone could turn this around, he probably could. But there were also those who saw him as flawed and knew this was always a risk. This time, it finally caught up with him. “They’ve been proven correct because obviously, it’s ended in a kind of chaotic, disorderly [way] — allegations of wrongdoing,” said Ben Williams, a lecturer in politics and political theory at the University of Salford. “And that’s probably what many would say was inevitable.”

Johnson leaves a Conservative party different from the one he found. It’s just not entirely clear what comes next.

Johnson’s promise of getting Brexit done helped usher in his rise. That unifying factor isn’t there anymore because the UK left the EU. (The Brexit problems continue.) That also means the Conservative Party about to choose a new leader is, in lots of ways, very different from the one that bet on Johnson three years ago.

As experts told me, the Conservative Party is now largely one of Euroskeptics. Instead of Brexit, the fault line is likely to be in this new Conservative coalition that Johnson managed to bring together. Divisions are emerging between the more traditional Conservatives who want to rein in public spending and want to see tax cuts (basically, what you’d consider low-tax, fiscal conservatives in the US) and these newer Conservative voters, many from working-class or blue-collar backgrounds, that are more likely to support public spending and want to see more state intervention and investments — the “leveling up” that Johnson talked up — come to fruition. Add in an economic and inflation crisis, and those tensions are likely to be even more pronounced.

How that plays out will depend on who becomes party leader — whoever the heck that might be.

A lot of people are going to put their names forward, though a clear favorite hasn’t really emerged. Ben Wallace, the defense secretary, whose profile has risen during the Ukraine war, is among the possible frontrunners. So is Rishi Sunak, who is one of the cabinet ministers who launched the government rebellion against Johnson this week. But unlike in 2019, when it was pretty much Johnson from the get-go, this leadership contest is pretty wide open.

This is kind of by Johnson’s design. “One of the clever things about Johnson, politically, is he’s really good at undermining potential rivals. So it’s not as if there was somebody waiting in the wings to come in and swoop in,” Griffiths said.

All of that has left a huge spread of people, in a pretty factional party, all of whom have decent odds of being the next leader. Typically, Conservative MPs will vote on candidates, eliminating them in rounds of voting until two finalists emerge. About 200,000 members of the Conservative Party will decide between those finalists. Those members tend to be older, white, and more conservative than probably the party as a whole.

But as experts pointed out, what will be top of mind for all members is which person is most likely to help Conservatives win. And the party is sure of one thing: That person is no longer Boris Johnson.

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