By April 1968, Charles de Gaulle was bored. “None of this amuses me anymore,” the French president told his aide-de-camp, Admiral François Flohic. “There is no longer anything difficult or heroic to do.” Over the previous decade, de Gaulle had returned from political exile to save the country from military insurrection, killed off the Fourth Republic, created the Fifth, ended the creeping civil war over Algeria and negotiated its independence, vetoed Britain’s application to join the European Common Market, withdrew France from NATO’s joint command, and declared, “Vive le Québec libre!” The prospect of plodding bureaucratic management was not going to cut it.
Within three weeks, France exploded into a revolution that came close to toppling de Gaulle and forced him to call new elections. Within a year he was gone, and within two he was dead. History, like bankruptcy, can happen slowly and then all at once.
Britain today has a similar sense of inertia, with rumblings of serious trouble in the background. Brexit has been done (sort of). The British economy is rebounding from the pandemic recession. The threat of Scottish secession has, at least for the moment, receded. Even Northern Ireland is eerily calm, despite the warnings of imminent collapse. Yet in place of these grand crises, Johnson finds himself dealing with the tawdry and the toxic—a series of self-inflicted scandals that are bogging him down—just as COVID rears back into view.
This is the paradoxical challenge facing the British prime minister today, two years on from his era-defining general-election victory. Having achieved Brexit, the main thing he set out to do, a question arises: What, now, is the point of Boris Johnson?
With his election in 2019, Johnson remade Britain. He sought a mandate from the country to end the paralysis prompted by the 2016 European Union referendum and was given it, redrawing Britain’s political map in the process. With that victory alone, Johnson rose up the ranks of Britain’s postwar prime ministers to become one of—if not the—most consequential, rivaled only by Margaret Thatcher, Clement Attlee, Tony Blair, and, perhaps more aptly, Edward Heath, the man who took Britain into what was then the European Economic Community (more on him later). None of that is to say Johnson is a good prime minister (not even his closest allies would suggest that right now), merely an important one.
Brexit, his singular feat, was accomplished at 11 p.m. on January 31, 2020—less than two months after his election and with four years to go before the next one is due. Then, before he could turn to anything else, the pandemic hit.
Over the next two years, Johnson would divorce his second wife, almost die from COVID, have a baby, marry for a third time, oversee one of the most catastrophic responses to the pandemic in the Western world—only to then oversee one of its most successful vaccination programs—soar to record poll leads, irreparably fall out with his most important aide, raise taxes to their highest level since the 1950s (breaking a campaign promise not to do so), host the G7 and the United Nations climate-change conference, and have another baby, his seventh (known) child.
And then, when everything seemed to calm down and, in theory, he could finally turn to his domestic agenda, his political problems began to pile up. And he had only himself to blame.
As de Gaulle’s political career was ending in April 1969, the main speculation in London was whether the British prime minister at the time, the Labour leader Harold Wilson, could survive much longer himself. Wilson, a twice-elected leader with a wider public appeal than his party, had been forced to devalue the pound in November 1967 in what amounted to a humiliating reversal of his economic plan. His poll ratings slumped and he came under intense pressure from members of his own party in Parliament, who feared he was steering them toward disaster in the next election. But then the economy turned a corner, his numbers began to climb, and the pressure lifted.
The author of the most esteemed biography of Wilson, Ben Pimlott, used this episode to illustrate what he calls the “iron law” of British politics: “A prime minister whose poll ratings show him (or her) to be failing as a populist leader, automatically comes under pressure. Conversely, a premier who succeeds in opinion poll terms is almost impossible to challenge.”
More than 50 years later, this iron law still holds. In the first few months after Johnson’s election, with Brexit enacted and the government locked in its battle to contain COVID, the Conservative Party enjoyed huge poll leads over Labour, as high as 21 percent in April 2020. From here, however, as the scale of Britain’s failure in the first wave became clear and the second wave began to roll across the country, the Tory lead steadily narrowed until it was essentially tied with Labour over the bleak COVID winter of 2020–21. It looked as though the pandemic had cost Johnson his honeymoon period, when prime ministers have the momentum to get things done.
Then Britain’s vaccine program kicked into gear. Initially the U.K. pulled ahead of almost every other country in the world, and Johnson reaped the rewards. From January to June, just before the prime minister removed most COVID restrictions, the Conservative Party’s lead steadily grew, nearly reaching levels last seen at the very beginning of Johnson’s post-election popularity. During this period Johnson seemed untouchable, even taking a seat off Labour in one of its electoral heartlands in an unscheduled election following the resignation of a sitting Labour lawmaker. Suddenly (and rather aptly), Johnson was enjoying a second honeymoon.
Since then, however, as the memory of the vaccine success faded, the gap between the two parties has once again steadily narrowed, disappearing into statistical insignificance in recent weeks. At the same time, Johnson’s personal ratings have plunged as well. And lo, just as the iron law decrees, Johnson now finds himself under the most intense spell of political pressure since the election, with hostile briefings dripping into the press from Conservative members of Parliament and government officials alongside speculation about rivals for leadership and damaging leaks about his behavior during the pandemic. He has lost his mojo, some say; he doesn’t know what he’s doing; the joke is not funny anymore; he hasn’t got a plan; he’s just not fit, morally or administratively, to do the job
In this telling, Johnson was supposed to have hit his nadir over the past few weeks. First, he inadvertently sparked a political storm over Conservative Party corruption by trying to retrospectively rewrite the rules governing the propriety of MPs. This came after one of his own lawmakers was found to have lobbied the government on behalf of companies that paid him hundreds of thousands of pounds for work outside his job as a parliamentarian. After a public outcry and days of damaging press reports about the outside earnings of other MPs, Johnson backtracked and apologized. He was then filmed losing his place in a speech, repeatedly mumbling “Sorry” before veering off into a strange segue about the children’s TV character Peppa Pig. Now the prime minister is accused of hosting parties at 10 Downing Street over Christmas 2020, while the rest of the country was locked down. This last scandal risks becoming emblematic of his chaotic dishonesty.
He has lost control of the narrative, buffeted by scandals of his own making, and his personal poll ratings have plummeted to their worst on record, with just 24 percent of the public favorable toward Johnson, and 51 percent unfavorable. For Johnson, such a precipitous fall in popularity is particularly dangerous because, like Wilson, “his selling-point among colleagues had always been his mass…