Boris Johnson: Rebel without a pause
The British fascinate us. We watch their television shows, listen to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), admire their accents and take comfort in knowing they are just “across the pond.”
So, when Boris Johnson stepped down this week as Conservative Party leader, we are likely to tune in to see the next episode of this series.
Johnson has been in hot water for quite some time, after numerous scandals including the investigation of official Downing Street parties during the COVID-19 lockdown despite explicit instructions against small gatherings. More recently, Johnson’s elevation of a Conservative lawmaker who had been accused of sexual assault was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back leading to an exodus of staff.
But it was Boris’s brash personality, as well as his reputation for breaking the rules, bending the truth and never taking his job quite seriously enough, that likely did him in. A recent British poll found that three out of four Britons found Johnson to be untrustworthy.
Johnson always seemed to relish his rebellious side. He looked delighted to be making a surprise visit to Kyiv last month to meet with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky rather than attend a local political conference back home.
What happens next?
Unlike in America, where democracy seems to have come unhinged as we hold hearings about a former president’s behavior, the British have an organized process for moving ahead with political transitions.
First, the Conservative Party leadership will hold a series of ballots to determine the top candidates for the job of prime minister.
The finalists will go before the Conservative Party — a select group of about 20,000 dues-paying members. Once the party has chosen a successor, which will presumably happen this fall, we will know who the next prime minister will be.
Why should we care?
It is always worth reminding ourselves that our alliances matter, especially during rocky times such as during a major war, global inflation, supply chain shortages and growing climate challenges.
The UK is one of the world’s largest economies. Boris Johnson helped navigate a difficult exit from the European Union, and we are more reliant than ever on European unity in the face of Russian aggression. The British are one of the major contributors to NATO at a time when the West is considering expanding the security alliance.
The costs of the war in Ukraine keep mounting, and Europe will need help dealing with a massive refugee crisis while citizens everywhere are feeling the effects of the war on energy prices.
Whoever replaces Johnson will have to make the case for continued support of Ukraine as the war drags on. It is too early to know who the next prime minister will be, but speculation has begun.
It could be the foreign secretary, Liz Truss. The Brits have a good track record of elevating women to power, as they did with Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. Another woman, Suella Braverman, Britain’s attorney general, has also showed interest in leading the country.
The Conservative Party could make a bold and diverse move and select Rishi Sunak, whose parents are immigrants from India. With experience in finance, he might sort out global inflation. Or they could go with Sajid Javid, the former health secretary who successfully managed Britain’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Or they could choose a more conventional figure like Ben Wallace, the defense secretary, or Jeremy Hunt, who has a background in health and might set the right post-pandemic policies.
The moral of the Boris Johnson story might be that charismatic populists are popular until they are not. People want to be entertained, but they also want to be informed and to know their leaders have a vision and a plan for enhancing the nation’s welfare. Think about Prime Minister Johnson’s final words to the British public:
“To you, the British public: I know that there will be many people who are relieved and, perhaps, quite a few will also be disappointed. And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world, but them’s the breaks.”
Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice in Public Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.