If British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were a widely respected leader, free from accumulated prior scandal and questions of impropriety, he probably would’ve been able to persevere through his latest controversy.
The story involves Chris Pincher, whom the prime minister tapped for a government post. While in office, Pincher allegedly got drunk and groped some people, which led to his resignation. The public learned soon after that he’d been accused of similar misconduct before, though Johnson’s team insisted he didn’t know anything about such allegations when the prime minister hired Pincher.
This defense predictably unraveled when Johnson was forced to concede that he had been informed about the claims and appointed Pincher anyway.
If the prime minister were wildly popular, and enjoyed a sterling reputation for integrity and honesty, this matter would’ve been embarrassing, but probably not politically fatal. But given the unfortunate fact that Johnson has no such reputation, the blowback from the latest controversy proved unsustainable. NBC News reported this morning:
Scandal-ridden British Prime Minister Boris Johnson capitulated to mounting pressure to step down Thursday, announcing his decision after days of high-profile government resignations and calls from fellow Conservative Party members to quit.... Johnson also said he planned to remain as prime minister until a successor is chosen — a move that may face opposition from others in an increasingly hostile Parliament.
There are experts in British politics who can speak with far more authority than I can about how long Johnson can expect to remain in office, but as the prime minister plans his exit, there are lessons that apply in the United States.
Throughout his tenure, the British leader ignored norms and limits, acted as if he were above the rules, repeatedly lied, and then blustered his way through, awaiting the next controversy. By all appearances, Johnson fully expected to weather his latest storm, just as he’d done before.
But those plans were thwarted by his ostensible allies. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes summarized last night, “What you are seeing now is what it looks like when a conservative party decides they have had enough — and that a leader is just too much of a menace to be tolerated.”
Quite right. Johnson didn’t announce his resignation as a result of intense self-reflection and an overwhelming sense of regret; he said he'd quit because Tories forced his hand. The prime minister ran out of friends, which in turn left him with no choices.
Indeed, in a scene reminiscent of congressional Republicans telling Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate that he no longer had the support he’d need to remain in office, senior cabinet members went to 10 Downing yesterday with the same message. A day later, Johnson grudgingly read the writing on the wall.
In other words, British conservatives, confronted with a scandal-plagued leader, concluded they could no longer tolerate the constant stream of disgraces and indignities.
They didn’t bite their tongues in the name of party loyalty; they didn’t keep their heads down fearing blowback from the leader’s followers and allied media. Rather, they concluded that their leader’s record of dishonesty and misconduct was something they could no longer even try to defend.
Imagine if Donald Trump’s cabinet and Republican allies on Capitol Hill were able to follow a similarly principled course.
As for the related parallels, I'll hope that Johnson resists any urge to summon an armed mob to London, as part of a plot to launch a violent attack on parliament.