Are democracies still capable of self-governing?

Associated Press/Matthias Schrader
President Joe Biden speaks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the G7 group photo shoot at Castle Elmau in Kruen, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on June 26, 2022. The Group of Seven leading economic powers met in Germany for their annual gathering.

Boris Johnson may have been the right man at the right time to become Britain’s prime minister, winning a huge electoral victory in 2019. But that is over; Johnson has been dismissed by his party. 

Changing prime ministers between elections is not uncommon in the United Kingdom. In 1940, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain, who remained in the war cabinet until his death later that year. After the UK voted to leave the European Union, David Cameron resigned, replaced by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.

While The Economist described Johnson’s behavior as clownish, it was lying to his colleagues that ultimately got him fired. I don’t know the American-born Johnson well. Our longest conversation was in July 2016, days after he had been appointed foreign minister. We were at British Airways’ Concorde Lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 awaiting a slightly delayed flight to Washington, D.C.

Johnson asked about the current state of Washington politics and the then-national security advisor, whom he called “this Susan Rice person.” Not knowing whether Johnson was being what the English call “cheeky” or  fully serious, I held back, replying “she’s no Condi,” referring to George W. Bush’s national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. But it soon became clear that despite his obvious charisma and charm, Johnson was unprepared for this trip.

Before boarding, Johnson asked “what about Trump? Can he win?” My rather vanilla response was “it is Hillary’s election to lose,” without grasping the irony of what would happen.

Johnson and Trump shared several traits. Both had supersized egos. Boris believed that he would prevail through his cleverness; Trump because he had always won in business or believed he had. Both often regarded the law, truth and fact only when it suited their purposes.

Both were foppish in different ways. Boris’s blonde hair looked like it was combed by an electric eggbeater. Trump strutted like a nouveau Mussolini with an open jacket and extra-long tie descending several inches below his belt buckle. And both faced dismissal from office.

In the U.S. system, presidents can be replaced in four ways: death, resignation, election or impeachment and conviction. American presidents have been impeached four times; Trump twice. None was convicted.

Johnson was forced from office not by his politics or policies but by his personal misconduct and the many falsehoods he uttered, which finally provoked massive resignations among ministers of parliament (MPs) serving in his administration. Unlike a president convicted of high crimes and misdemeanors who would leave office immediately, Johnson remains as prime minister until the Conservative grandees select a replacement. That may take time.

Parliament “rises,” meaning adjourns, on July 22 for the summer recess, re-convening in September. If a replacement is not determined before then, Johnson, who resigned as party leader, remains at Number 10. When that person is chosen by the party, Johnson will proceed to Buckingham Palace and offer his resignation to the queen, along with permission to form a new government headed by his successor. At that point, Johnson, still an MP, will drift into political oblivion.

But that is not necessarily the case for Donald Trump. Had Trump been convicted by the Senate, he would be permanently barred from seeking office. Even if the Jan. 6 committee uncovers enough evidence of crimes, only the Justice Department can indict. And depending on the alleged crimes, even if Trump were convicted, it is unclear whether he would be eligible for office. After all, candidates have been elected from jail, and one vice presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, ran in 1920 having been convicted  in 1895 of violating federal law.

Another enormous difference between the U.S. and UK political systems is that, in 2024, two octogenarians, Trump and President Biden, could be running for the presidency. And leaders of both parties in Congress are of an age unlike their colleagues in the House of Commons. Of the likely successors as prime minister, few are likely to be even 60 years of age. 

Where are both countries headed? Biden has declared that the challenge of the times pits democracies against autocracies. But he is quite wrong. The challenge of these times is whether democracies are capable of self-governing.  

In the UK, there is no obvious Churchill, Thatcher, Major, Blair or Brown lurking in the wings. In the U.S., an even greater absence of obvious candidates for high office is more alarming. But who will lead is perhaps the most critical and unanswerable question facing these two great nations.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Boris johnson resignation Brexit Donald Trump Neville Chamberlain United Kingdom United States
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