It’s been dubbed “the long goodbye.”
Boris Johnson, the rumpled, brazen prime minister who in his naysayer-defying career led Conservatives to a historic win, ushered in a new style of British politicking and pulled his nation out of the European Union, finally came tumbling down this week under the weight of insurmountable scandals and dozens of resignations by his ministers.
But Johnson, who after refusing for days to step down relented Thursday, will remain in office while the ruling Conservative Party chooses his successor, a process that could take weeks or even months. It will be a painfully slow departure for a man whose already shaky reputation was further chipped away this year after revelations of boozy parties at his official residence during COVID lockdowns and, more recently, his botched responses after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against a lawmaker whom he promoted to an upper-level government job.
Johnson has promised to be a lame duck. His office said he would “not seek to implement new policies or make major changes of direction” in Britain while he awaits his replacement in 10 Downing St.
That leaves his nation largely treading water as it confronts a cost-of-living crisis, a wave of labor strikes this summer, grim predictions of a recession and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
But many Britons are equally exhausted by Johnson’s premiership, a nonstop trail of drama and chaos since he essentially ousted then-Prime Minister Theresa May in 2019, through a similar party revolt, with a pledge to “get Brexit done.” While voters then were hungry for Johnson’s undoubted communication skills, bubbly optimism and celebrity persona — a combination not often found in British politicians — many now are eager for someone who exhibits the seriousness, integrity and grasp of policy they expect from their leader in such trying times.
“Boris was an unconventional politician who came in during an unconventional moment in British politics,” said Matthew Flinders, a politics professor at the University of Sheffield. “A window opened up, and Boris was able to slide through it.
“But now we’re in a different time,” Flinders added, citing a “craving for a more sensible, calm, delivery-focused” leader.
One of Johnson’s fellow Conservative Party lawmakers was blunt about the need for change.
“We need to have a leader who is unsullied — uncontaminated, if you like — by the mistakes, particularly in the tone of the government as well as some of its actions,” Andrew Mitchell, who served in former Prime Minister David Cameron’s Cabinet, told the BBC. “It needs to be someone clearly with experience. …
“I think it does need to be someone who is patently moral and decent and can win back the vast numbers of Conservatives that we know have deserted the party from recent polling and recent [special] elections.”
The field of contenders is wide open. It includes Atty. Gen. Suella Braverman, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi, the chief of the treasury. The former chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and former Health Secretary Sajid Javid — whose near-simultaneous resignations from the Cabinet on Tuesday night started the ball rolling that led to Johnson’s fall — also have their backers.
Although he has promised to be only a caretaker prime minister, analysts say Johnson is likely to use the time before his successor is chosen to try to do damage control and salvage his reputation.
“I don’t think Boris knows how to do anything quietly,” Flinders said. “I’m not sure this saga is quite over yet. He isn’t someone who I think could exist beyond the limelight. He won’t want to just be a celebrity. He has always craved attention, status and respect.”
Johnson had survived a no-confidence vote last month but emerged badly bruised after only 211 of 369 Conservative members of Parliament said they wanted to keep him as their party’s leader. The vote gave him protection from a formal internal challenge to his leadership for at least a year but was not enough to keep his own ministers from turning against him in the last few days.
“After that vote, he was always on borrowed time,” said John Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. “He was the person who was most charismatic and in favor of Brexit in 2016 and his legacy is that he was the one to deliver on it. Beyond that, he leaves personal failure.”
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Anand Menon, a politics professor at King’s College London, cautioned that it “is too early to start writing the story of Johnson’s legacy.”
“He is not perfect. But you can’t write Donald’s Trump legacy based on events ending on Jan. 6,” Menon said, giving a nod to a common comparison between two personality-driven world leaders known for their bombast and fuzzy relationships with the truth but also their campaign skills and celebrity status.
“There’s still more time in which an awful lot could happen that could resurrect him, such as if there — God forbid — is a terrorist attack, or something more dreadful happens in Ukraine, or any number of events,” Menon said.
Unlike Trump, who refuses to acknowledge losing an election and has teased that he may run for another term, Johnson appears to have conceded that his time at the top will soon be over.
“I want to tell you how sorry I am to be giving up the best job in the world,” the prime minister said from 10 Downing St. as he announced his departure to boos and jeers from protesters outside the gates. “Them’s the breaks.”
Kaleem is a staff writer and Boyle a special correspondent.