Can the rise and fall of Boris Johnson offer any lessons on leadership?

image description: the door of 10 Downing Street, where Boris Johnson announced his resignation.

Much has been written about Boris Johnson’s moral failures, his shortcomings, his habitual dishonesty, his disloyalty, and his contradictions. But are there any lessons which Boris Johnson’s rise and fall can offer the students of politics and aspiring politicians?

It could easily be suggested that somebody of Boris Johnson’s character should never have become Prime Minister in the first place. After all, he found it difficult to find the number of supporters he needed in parliament the first time around. “My friends…I have concluded that person cannot be me” he famously told his colleagues back in 2016. But it would be improper, if not impossible, to try to arrive at some historical assessment of Johnson the Prime Minister without a proper grasp of the circumstances in which he became leader and which later helped him to win a majority. 

Just like his hero, Sir Winston Churchill, who arguably became Prime Minister in May 1940 only for the particular circumstances of the time and for his particular anti-appeasement record, Johnson too was viewed by Tory MPs as singularly qualified to drive through Brexit and end parliamentary deadlock. After all, Brexit was his electoral child which bore his DNA and for which he had to take some responsibility.

After all, Brexit was his electoral child which bore his DNA and for which he had to take some responsibility.  

To a parliament which appeared stagnant without the ability to produce any consensus, and to a Conservative Party demoralised by May’s leadership and electorally wounded in the latest European elections, Johnson offered a compelling and (if not fanciful) comforting story. He exuded a  Can-Do Attitude in a way only he seemed to know-how. He proved himself the writer who instead of ‘show not tell’ seemed to only deliver ‘tell not show’. He must have thought that an endless talk of ‘forty new hospitals’ is the same as actually building forty new hospitals. He tried to energise his party (“it is the final ‘e’ my friends”) around a policy of cakeism. He wanted to have it both ways, offering well funded public services as well as lower taxes. “My policy on cake is both pro-having it and pro-eating it” he once told an audience. Fate had it in store for his premiership not only to be “ambushed by cake” but ambushed by scandal after scandal, to which he proved himself uniquely inept at dealing. 

Can anybody match Aris Roussinos’ beautifully damning assessment of Johnson’s time in office as a huge missed opportunity for reform? About the Prime Minister who, as a boy, had dreamt of becoming ‘world King’, Roussino wrote: “Fate had granted (him) an appointment with History: but he missed it, lost in a diary clash with wallpaper merchants and lobby courtiers”. 

Yet, there can be no doubt about his campaigning abilities, coming up against an exhausted and divided opposition, which paid him dividends in 2019. With his huge majority came great expectations for reform which his life-long tendency for distraction, idleness and ill-discipline  prevented him from fulfilling. (Just ask his former employer Max Hastings). Before being hit by the pandemic in March 2020, he is said to have gone on a holiday after the general election victory and even (allegedly) tried to pen a biography of Shakespeare on the side upon his return. 

There lies the most obvious lesson, to not squander the opportunity where life may present one. To ‘seize the day’ and push through the most difficult tasks early on. Because otherwise “events, dear boy, events” may seriously derail one’s course of action. Had Johnson used his first 100 days in office to push through his domestic agenda (i.e. tackling regional inequality) before the pandemic came to dominate everything, he may now have had more of a legacy to speak of. In an ironic twist of fate, the government elected on the promise of ‘getting things done’ instead of procrastination became the epicentre of “delay and dither”. Being slow to lockdown, slow to testing, and slow to secure the care homes led to a fast-rising death toll. The man who made a career out of telling jokes and making audiences laugh found himself in a crisis for which he was least suited. He found himself having to make statements on topics which were no laughing matter and take important decisions about which he couldn’t write two columns. 

The man who made a career out of telling jokes and making audiences laugh found himself in a crisis for which he was least suited.

It’s not unreasonable to imagine that had Boris Johnson not been in charge of UK government’s pandemic response, he would have joined the ranks of his contrarian columnist chums, the likes of Toby Young and James Delingpole in decrying Lockdown as the mischief of the Blairite nanny state. Fate delivered him to lead the type of government his journalistic former self made a career out of denouncing. 

Even Johnson’s other flagship policy-now legacy, his “oven-ready Brexit Deal”, has proved itself, like all microwave meals, to be essentially disappointing. Having promised the Ulster Unionists that there would be no border on the Irish sea (“over my dead body“) he created a blockage on Northern Ireland’s devolved administration and seriously endangered the Good Friday Agreement. His deal, in practice, reads like a last-minute undergraduate essay which ends inconclusively and ends up not actually answering the question. Here lies another lesson: do not promise what you know you can’t deliver.

Here lies another lesson: do not promise what you know you can’t deliver.

In the end, Johnson’s premiership collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. On the steps of Downing Street he famously told the nation “never mind the backstop, the buck stops here“. Yet the only consistent theme in his tenure seemed to be the abject refusal to take responsibility. Instead of turbocharging the economy, he leaves behind an economy with rising inflation, low growth and stagnant wages. Instead of ‘levelling up’ he levelled down with regressive tax rises. And finally, once the curtains are drawn and the lights go off, the entertainer-in-chief leaves the circus, to do what he should have always stuck with doing: writing columns and making after-dinner speeches. We won’t see the back of him. He will continue to try to unleash his own earning potential and turbocharge his own bank balance.

image attribution: UK Government via Wikimedia Commons