Why now for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the man who weathered a million scandals? A resignation explainer. – Grid News


Why now for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the man who weathered a million scandals? A resignation explainer.

“My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And indeed opportunities for fresh disasters.”

That was one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson — better known as just Boris Johnson — back in 2004, when he was still a journalist and a Conservative Party member of the British Parliament. Today, it is as good a summation as any of the story of how — after rising to become, first, mayor of London and then prime minister — Johnson was forced to say he would resign as Britain’s leader.

The announcement came in time-honored fashion: A galloping train of scandals and interparty skirmishes that had been accumulating for months finally forced Johnson’s team to push out a lectern in front of the famous black door of No. 10 Downing St., the British prime minister’s office and residence in central London. Standing behind it on Thursday morning, Johnson, who over the years made a bumbling art form of somehow weathering all manner of personal and professional controversy, finally called it quits.

“In politics, no one is remotely indispensable,” he conceded, never once using the word “resign” or apologizing in any way for the errors that triggered his exit, only two-and-a-half years after he led his Conservative Party to its biggest electoral victory since the 1980s.


So what happened? The end came following a chaotic 48 hours during which more than 50 members of Johnson’s government abandoned their posts, including his finance and health ministers.

The trigger for this cloudburst of resignations was the departure from government of Chris Pincher, a Conservative Party lawmaker, after he was accused of sexually assaulting two male guests at a London club. Pincher’s job was to enforce party discipline, a role to which Johnson had appointed him in February — despite, it soon emerged, Pincher facing past sexual misconduct complaints.

Johnson ultimately apologized for giving Pincher the post, but the damage had been done: The saga refocused attention within his own party on Johnson’s style of government and a string of scandals that almost led to his own ouster from Downing Street earlier this year. It was, in other words, only the latest disaster that raised for Johnson’s colleagues a critical political question: “Sure,” Conservative politicians whispered to reporters around London’s Westminster political district, “he won us the last election — but can he win the next one?”

The question wasn’t new; it animated a vote of no confidence against Johnson by his own Conservative Party colleagues in early June. He won, but only with a modest margin, as opinion polls in late May showed that, were a snap election to be called, the party would likely face large-scale losses in key parliamentary seats. And there was more: The same polls suggested that Johnson himself could lose his seat.

The charismatic, Teflon-skinned election winner was beginning to look like anything but.


“You see [the Conservative Party] tanking in the polls, and you see the prime minister personally starting to tank in the polls, which is when people start thinking, ‘Hang on a sec, has he moved from being an electoral asset to electoral liability?’” Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, told Grid.

The polling reflected public discontent over an earlier set of scandals that has come to be known as Partygate. As we have previously discussed here at Grid, it all had to do with what happened in the months after Johnson’s 2019 electoral triumph: the arrival of covid-19.

With the onset of the pandemic, Britain, like other countries around the world, soon introduced restrictions on social gatherings. But revelations in recent months, including leaked photographs, showed that even as ordinary citizens faced police fines for socializing, Johnson and his colleagues were behaving otherwise — and doing so in brazen fashion.

Evidence of several gatherings, including alcohol-fueled parties when the restrictions were at their most stringent, began to turn opinion against Johnson — who also, following an official investigation, earned himself the (dis)honor of becoming the first sitting British leader to face a police fine. His chancellor, or finance minister, Rishi Sunak, was among more than 80 people in his orbit who were issued with a total of 126 fines.

The fallout was bruising. Voices from the Conservative camp openly called for him to go, among them the Johnson government’s point man on anti-corruption issues, the lawmaker John Penrose, who resigned saying: “I hope you will stand aside so we can look to the future and choose your successor.”

Although the subsequent no confidence vote ultimately went Johnson’s way, the loss of two parliamentary seats in a set of electoral contests later in June emboldened those within the party who wanted Johnson to go. The momentum was building — and the dam ultimately broke with the Pincher saga.

“[It] just kind of brought it all together,” Menon, from King’s College London, told Grid. “It distanced the public still further.”

New polling shows as much. In a snap poll by the British public opinion tracker YouGov earlier this week, most Conservative voters — or 54 percent — said he should step down as prime minster. Worryingly for Conservative Party politicians, the margin was even higher in a poll of Britons: Close to 70 percent said Johnson should resign.

For a while, he didn’t, even as the resignations piled up — among them Sunak, who himself was facing growing scrutiny over his personal financial affairs. He was among the first, along with Johnson’s health minister, Sajid Javid, to put in his papers this week. Both made their resignations public on Twitter — around the same time that British television aired tape of Johnson apologizing for giving Pincher a job.

But ultimately, Johnson acknowledged that he had no choice: His party had had enough. As he put it in his departure speech: “Them’s the breaks.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.