“Boris Johnson was a court jester, who thought he was a King.” This remark by a commentator on social media aptly sums up the drama that is unfolding in the Westminster.
The British Prime Minister, after putting up a resistance and trying to cling on to power amid a raging scandal, has now resigned. He had to, he didn’t have a choice after over 50 ministers and aides, including three cabinet members, had resigned over the past two days claiming they had lost confidence in Johnson over his handling of the latest sex scandal to rock the government.
Despite calls from his loyalists to step down, a defiant Johnson initially retaliated by sacking a minister and former top ally. But with senior cabinet members jumping the ship and public opinion overwhelmingly turning against him, the Conservative leader caved in.
Johnson’s prime ministership came under the hammer on Tuesday following the resignations of two of his top cabinet ministers – Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid. This set off a trail of resignations by other ministers and aides, that evidently looked like the beginning of the end for Johnson.
The wave of resignations came after Johnson apologized for appointing senior Conservative MP Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip. Pincher was earlier forced to step down following accusations that in an inebriated state he had inappropriately touched two men.
Days of obfuscation had followed Pincher’s resignation, with Downing Street initially feigning ignorance saying Johnson was unaware of prior allegations. That claim collapsed like a pack of cards when a former top civil servant revealed that the prime minister was made aware of another similar incident involving Pincher as early as in 2019.
The lies surrounding the Pincher scandal had unnerved many, who had previously turned a blind eye to Johnson taking repeated liberties with truth. So, on Wednesday, the embattled prime minister, on his return to Downing Street after the parliamentary committee inquisition, was confronted by his cabinet members including Interior Minister Priti Patel and, according to some reports, Nadhim Zahawi who took charge as Sunak’s successor less than 24 hours ago. Zahawi’s presence was later denied by Downing Street.
Later Wednesday, Johnson lost a third member of his cabinet – Welsh Secretary Simon Hart. Soon, there was a barrage of resignations from other ministers and aides. By the end of the day, there were speculations of whether Britain still has “a functioning government.”
Johnson has been called a “serial liar” but the latest scandal is not just about lies, it is about the blatant abuse of power without any fear of consequences. It is about an authoritarian prime minister appointing a crony merely on the grounds of personal loyalty flouting even the minimum veneer of suitability for the job, despite reasonable warning about the questionable character of the candidate. Johnson ignored the allegations of sexual harassment as it came in the way of consolidating his own political position.
On Wednesday, Johnson reacted to the growing voice of dissent within his cabinet and party like a despot – by sacking Communities Secretary Michael Gove, who was reportedly the first to seek the prime minister’s resignation for the larger good of the Tory party and country. In more signs of authoritarianism, Johnson was quoted by The Sun newspaper as telling colleagues that they would have to “dip [their] hands in blood” to push him out of office.
Even until late Wednesday, the allies of the prime minister wore a brave face asserting that Johnson plans to “fight on” and that he was in a “buoyant mood.” Meanwhile, public opinion, as reflected in the media headlines, had decisively turned against the scandal-hit leader.
The Guardian, in a scathing editorial, lashed out at Johnson’s “shameful legacy.” Noting that removing the leader is not enough to repair the damage done to British democracy, the daily advocated for “a thorough regime change.”
Financial Times argued that “the departure” of Johnson was long overdue, saying that a change of a prime minister could no longer be delayed. “If ever there was a moment when the UK needed competent and trustworthy leadership, it is now,” it said, underlining that “the Johnson era is ending. It would have been better for the country if it had ended months ago.”
Johnson wasn’t new to scandals or controversy. He had been at the center of the COVID-19 lockdown breaking “Partygate” scandal for months, facing a parliamentary investigation into whether he lied to members of the parliament (MPs) about the revelations.
Just a month ago, the British Prime Minister narrowly survived a no-confidence vote among Conservative MPs. While in normal circumstances, that would have meant Johnson couldn’t be challenged for at least another year, had he continued to resist stepping down in the face of the latest scandal, a second no-confidence vote wouldn’t be unthinkable after all.
As the trust in the prime minister ebbed faster than the tide, the government’s ability to govern eroded rapidly. A country, still emerging from two years of pandemic and dealing with the worst economic conditions in a generation, needs a government that could steer it efficiently with a far-sighted policy agenda. The signs were clear. For the larger interest of the country and its people, Johnson had to go. There was no exit plan that could work with Johnson clinging on to power.
It is up to the Conservative Party now to rise to the occasion and come up with an able leader to not just replace Johnson but to set into motion a new, sensible legacy, rooted in the interest of the British people.
With his final resignation, Johnson might still, at least partially, redeem himself from being remembered as a court jester who thought he was a King. Well, he tried to be one, but miserably failed. That will be his lasting legacy.
Abhishek G Bhaya is a senior journalist and international affairs commentator. The article reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily the views of The Southern African Times.