How Boris Johnson’s spinning moral compass finally led him to the political brink

It is only natural that those who see themselves as being at the centre of the world are led astray by a spinning moral compass.

In the case of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is set to announce his resignation Thursday after facing a rebellion the intensity of which is rarely seen in politics, it is the directionless gyration of his ethical dial that pulled him down the proverbial drain.

What’s sent Johnson spiralling has not been a particular one of his various alleged infidelities, not one specific government contract improperly awarded, not any the several government parties in breach of pandemic lockdown rules, nor even the appointment of an alleged “sex pest” to a government post tasked with ensuring party discipline — the latest scandalous misstep.

It is the confluence of the many tempests that have formed around Johnson over his long public life as a newspaper columnist, member of Parliament, mayor of London and prime minister of Great Britain that had him paddling so hard, fighting with what little power he had left, to avoid being swept away.

Yet even in his darkest political hour, Johnson offered a few philosophical words to a hostile panel of U.K. parliamentarians convened Wednesday to study what was described — in typical British understatement — as “the work of the prime minister.”

“I hope, prime minister, you will reflect that, in the end, we are all dispensable,” said Sir Bernard Jenkin, the committee chair, and a member of Johnson’s own Conservative party.

It was a moment at the end of a two-hour grilling — a period during which eight members of his government tendered their resignations and a handful of Johnson’s cabinet secretaries had begun assembling at 10 Downing Street, his residence, to deliver the message in person that the time had come for him to go.

“That is certainly true,” Johnson replied to Sir Bernard. “All flesh is grass.”

The 58-year-old, thrice married father of seven has uttered many such memorable phrases over his time in public life. But all too often, there has been an unbridgeable gap between what Johnson has said and what he has done.

In April 2020, he became one of the earliest celebrity COVID-19 cases at a time when little was yet known about the virus. He was admitted to the intensive-care unit and put on oxygen treatments, saying that there were “48 hours when things could have gone either way.”

Johnson could have drawn on his personal experience to lead his fellow Brits through the trying times of lockdowns and personal restrictions.

Instead, he was himself breaching his own government’s rules on public gatherings, hosting a May 2020 wine-and-cheese party at his residence, one of several such public-health violations that came to be known as “Partygate.”

The conclusion of a public investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray that featured insider photos of Johnson hoisting his glass aloft at a Downing Street gathering for the departure of a special adviser was that there were “failures of leadership and judgment.”

“I get it and I will fix it,” was Johnson’s January message of contrition.

Not everyone was convinced.

Last month, Johnson passed a confidence vote with the support of 55 per cent, or 211, of his MPs while 41 per cent, or 148, voted against him staying on as Conservative party leader.

He had hardly recovered from the near-death experience when he was stung by the unfortunately named Christopher Pincher.

Johnson had appointed the veteran Tory MP to the post of deputy chief whip in the House of Commons in February, responsible for herding the caucus to do the party’s bidding on votes and other parliamentary business.

When details emerged earlier this month of an alleged incident of drunken groping, it led to a string of similar incidents being revealed.

That raised questions not just about Pincher’s behaviour but about Johnson’s judgment.

When Johnson dug in and claimed ignorance of past wrongdoing, he was himself outed by a former senior adviser, Dominic Cummings.

If Johnson didn’t know, Cummings asked on Twitter, why did he refer to the alleged groper as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature.”

The quip has led to a quake. By Thursday, when word started circulating that he had finally accepted to resign, the count had risen to 59 people—cabinet secretaries, ministers, parliamentary secretaries and appointees—who had had handed in their own resignation letters.

The stunning loss of faith in Johnson by members of his own government and party make for shocking headlines, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise — at least it won’t to those who have crossed paths and swords with him over the years.

“He’s a charming companion,” Jenny Jones, a city of London assembly member when Johnson was mayor of the English capital, told the Guardian in 2019. “But you couldn’t trust him to feed your cat if you were away one evening.”

Ken Livingston, his predecessor in the mayor’s office, told the New Statesman in 2014 that he was initially convinced that London under a Johnson administration would take a hard-right turn à la Margaret Thatcher after poring over a decade’s worth of the political columns that made Johnson famous.

Instead, he said, he was struck by a photo taken to mark Johnson’s five-year mayoral anniversary. His desk was arranged identically to Livingston’s when he held the office, right down to the placement of the pot that held a collection of pens.

His conclusion was that Johnson was a man of ambition, not action, a man with a lust for power but no real plans for what to do with it.

Or, in Livingston’s words: “a fairly lazy tosser who just wants to be there.”

Johnson made the pivot back to the British Parliament in September 2014, when he was still London’s mayor, calling it, “Act one, scene one of a long process.”

His political play has taken him around the world as Britain’s foreign secretary, then placed him in the spotlight as prime minister with a mandate to pull Britain out of the European Union, better known by the portmanteau “Brexit.”

But the audience was growing antsy with the accumulating scandals, a disturbing many of them of a sexual nature. The curtains looked certain to soon be drawn.

The tabloid headline writers were dreaming up the portmanteau to use when Boris was finally tossed from the Prime Minister’s Office. Bexit? Johnsayonara? CheeriBo? It won’t be long now before we see what they’ve come up with.

Until the end, Johnson insisted he had more left to give to the millions of electors who gave him a mandate to govern. But he was hanging on by a terrible technicality—a Conservative party rule that prohibits the holding of more than one leadership confidence vote per year.

The fact that 211 Tory MPs opted to stick with Johnson in June meant that he was safe until at least next week, when the committee that governs internal caucus rules is to be reconstituted in an election with some of the candidates running on an anti-Johnson pledge to change the rules on confidence votes if they got the nod.

Johnson’s political fate was down to simple mathematics, as one opposition Labour MP, Meg Hillier, tried to point out during Wednesday’s prime ministerial grilling.

There are 358 elected Conservative MPs in the U.K. House of Commons. Johnson needed the support of at least 179 to keep his job. But 148 had already voted against him last time around and dozens had since given up their influential government posts in frustration and disgust.

“It’s not looking very good,” Hillier said, “is it?”

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