Boris Johnson’s Watergate
In Boris Johnson’s office at 10 Downing Street, a vista of London hangs above the fireplace. The work was painted by his mother, Charlotte Wahl, who died four months ago at the age of 79, having lived long enough to see her son become prime minister and then win an election by such a margin that it seemed to have ushered in a new era in British politics: the Johnson era.
For Wahl, it must have been a proud moment, and perhaps confirmation that whatever difficulties she suffered during Johnson’s childhood, she had done well by him. When Johnson was young, Wahl had a mental breakdown that resulted in her spending months in a London hospital, while her children remained in Brussels. Wahl’s deep grief about this is expressed in a series of paintings that she produced during her stay at the Maudsley hospital. In one haunting image, Wahl depicts her and her husband, Stanley, along with their four children, all of them dangling by their arms with scared looks on their faces. The painting is titled The Johnson Family Hanged by Circumstances.
Today, Johnson’s political future is hanging as precariously as he is in that image, and because of circumstances entirely his own making.
As I write this, the British prime minister is caught up in a political scandal of such extraordinary power and emotional resonance that within the next few weeks or months, he may be forced from office. This is despite the fact that he is barely two years into a five-year Parliament, having won in 2019 the biggest Conservative majority in 30 years.
The scandal is this: While the rest of the country was under some degree of lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, Johnson attended various “parties” or gatherings at 10 Downing Street, where he works and lives with his wife and children. While, under British guidelines, ordinary members of the public were only allowed to meet one other person outside, officials in Downing Street got together to socialize. While people were not allowed to visit their dying friends and family in hospitals and care homes, Johnson and his wife were at a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden with about 40 aides.
At the moment, a senior civil servant—independent of Johnson’s government—has been tasked with investigating all of these parties. More than 10 events appear to have taken place on government property. Some of the gatherings are being examined to discover exactly what happened, who attended, and whether officials broke any laws at the time.
The report is expected to be published in the next few weeks. If it finds Johnson personally culpable of breaking the law, the pressure for him to go might become unmanageable, as Conservative members of Parliament, fearful for their seat during the next election, move against him. Yesterday, the Conservative Party’s leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross, became the first senior Tory to call for Johnson to resign. That may already be enough to tip Johnson over the edge. Any criminal investigation by the police into the “socially distanced drinks” in the Downing Street garden might be the final straw.
If Johnson is forced from power, it would be a political and personal failure unprecedented in modern British politics. Since 1945, no other prime minister at this stage of the electoral cycle, having won such a convincing majority, has suffered such a quick fall from grace. Prime Minister Anthony Eden, previously Winston Churchill’s wartime foreign secretary, resigned in 1957, two years after winning a majority. But Eden did so because of a unique combination of illness and foreign-policy failures after the Suez Crisis, a foundational moment of humiliation in postwar British politics. To many people, of course, Brexit is a similar disaster, but that is not why Johnson is under pressure. On the contrary, in fact, his power and popularity were based on his promise to “get Brexit done.”
The only British historical parallel of any merit that I can think of is the fall of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, whose popularity after leading the country to victory in World War I led some Conservatives to remark that he could be “prime minister for life” if he wanted. Within three years, though, he had resigned, after a series of scandals undermined his support from the public, prompting the Conservative Party to withdraw its support from the coalition he was leading.
A better comparison, though, is Richard Nixon, a man of extraordinary political gifts—far more so than Johnson—laid low by a scandal that came to represent all of his character flaws, which everyone already knew about. Watergate eventually toppled Nixon in 1974; just two years earlier he had won a landslide of such crushing proportions, winning every state but Massachusetts, that it is barely conceivable today.
The Shakespearean drama of Nixon’s slow political asphyxiation is like nothing else in modern democratic history: a subtle weaving of personal tragedy, human weakness, criminal folly, and natural justice, with a denouement almost made for TV. In comparison, Johnson’s Watergate—“Partygate,” as it is now known—is low-grade, cheap, and almost pathetic in its smallness, but with all the same ingredients of tragedy, weakness, folly, and natural justice.
Yet Johnson does not have to commit a “high crime or misdemeanor” to be forced out. The key to remember is that Britain, unlike the United States, is a parliamentary system, which means that a prime minister is only as powerful as his command of the House of Commons and, by extension, his party. Johnson’s only hope right now is that he can persuade his party to hold the line until the onslaught is over and pray that no new revelations come to light. For Johnson, though, like Nixon before him, the reality is that he is no longer in control.
Like Watergate, Partygate reveals the character traits that have long defined Johnson, but that, until the scandal, were seen as either irrelevant or even positive when dealing with Brexit. Now, applied to the pandemic, they are seen as disqualifying.
In a profile of Johnson that I wrote last year, I painted him as a “minister of chaos” who revels in a kind of performative disdain for the rules that apply to everybody else. Here was a politician, I wrote, who was like “another species” to most others, “superficially disheveled but in fact focused and watchful,” a man who enjoyed in the messiness of life, and believed that the key was to adapt to it, not try to tidy it up. This was how he saw the world, too, and therefore why he believed that Britain could succeed after Brexit, becoming more agile and adaptable outside the European Union. The point of my story was that the chaos around Johnson was partly for show but also real. He was serious about his own advancement but also really did believe that the rules did not apply to him, because they never had, and so he appeared unserious. The challenge ahead of him, now that he was prime minister, I wrote, was to take his electoral victory and Brexit revolution and show the administrative focus to make them work. So far he has failed at that task, preferring to stay in the chaos, where he has always existed.
The great irony of Johnson is that he seems to understand his own weaknesses better than most politicians do, yet he remains unable to do anything about them, drawn like some giant blond moth to the flame of his own political undoing.
Before Johnson was a politician, he was a journalist and a writer—a profession and pastime he continued even after entering Parliament. He wrote a children’s poem (complete with his own illustrations), a popular history of Rome, a slapdash biography of Churchill, and even a trashy comedic novel. In the novel, Seventy Two Virgins, Johnson’s lead character is a blundering Conservative politician with no real friends and only a “knuckle of principle in the opaque minestrone of his views.” This figure, Roger Barlow, is being hounded by the press over a scandal that the reader must wait until the final pages of the book to discover, but that Barlow is constantly panicked about, scouring the newspapers to find out if the story that will bring him down has finally been published. “There was something prurient about the way he wanted to read about his own destruction,” Johnson writes, “just as there was something weird about the way he had been impelled down the course he had followed.”
In the book, Johnson speculates that his character might be an akratic, someone characterized by a weakness of will that results in him making decisions against his better judgment. Johnson’s critics, such as Rory Stewart, one of his former Conservative leadership opponents, say that this idea of Johnsonian akrasia is bunkum. Johnson isn’t good-but-weak, they argue; he is an amoral chancer who pretends to be weak-willed but whose only goal is power for power’s sake. Johnson, though, does offer an alternative theory in the novel: something called the “Thanatos urge,” which is, in essence, a death urge.
Are these clues to Johnson’s deeper self-consciousness, or perhaps just the meanderings of an attention-seeking novelist? Either way, it’s clear that Johnson was always aware that his lifelong quest to become prime minister would leave him and all his character flaws exposed for the world to see.
He has also consistently shown a deep cynical awareness about the fate of all politicians. In one article, published in his book Have I Got Views for You, Johnson writes that politics is little more than a repetition of the age-old tradition of “how we make kings for our societies, and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth.” He continues: “Some of the kings are innocent; indeed, some of them take away the sins of the world. Some of them are less innocent … It doesn’t really matter. They must die.”
In the end, Johnson believes that narrative matters more than facts. “People live by narrative,” he told me in one of our interviews for my profile. “Human beings are creatures of the imagination.” Whether Johnson is found innocent or guilty in the official report is, of course, hugely consequential. He may somehow survive and go on to last longer in office than currently seems possible. Yet Johnson can hardly complain if the story the country chooses to believe does not tally with his own, now necessarily legalistic version of events. If humans are creatures of the imagination, as Johnson says, they do not let their leader off on some technicality when the basic truth is that he didn’t think the rules everybody else was following applied to him.
Whether he likes it or not, Johnson is now the evil king in the great Partygate scandal. That story has been written. As such, he is now close to his end, for the sake of a national rebirth from this sordid tale of contempt. Johnson can only hope that he survives long enough to eventually distract voters with a different story altogether. That won’t be easy.