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King of Chaos: Prime Minister Boris Johnson's tenure and departure

7 min read

“The Prime Minister said: ‘I am more frightened of you having the power to stop the chaos than I am of the chaos. The chaos means everyone will look to me as the man in charge.’” – Dominic Cummings, May 26, 2021

Of all of the improbable claims made by the Prime Minister this year, one of the oddest was that, at the next election, he would run on a platform of “sensible” government versus “chaos” under Labour. For a man with a keen sense of his own image, it was a surprising idea. David Cameron could run against chaos. Theresa May could run against chaos. But Boris Johnson was chaos.

For as long as Johnson has been a public figure, anarchy has been his shtick: turning up late for events, pretending not to know where he was, being interrupted by his mobile phone while recording Have I Got News For You. Sometimes the chaos seemed faked. Sometimes, as when his own leadership campaign blew up in 2016, it was clearly real. 

Johnson approached public life as though it were a reality TV show in which the worst crime of all was to be boring

It appealed to voters, telling them he was quite different from other politicians. And, combined with his chief of staff Cummings’ take-no-prisoners approach, it helped to persuade the European Union that his threats about a no-deal Brexit might be genuine. But it ultimately brought him down.

Most ambitious politicians try to avoid the unpredictable. They want to appear in settings they can control, nodding thoughtfully as people in lab coats or hard hats point at things, or speaking earnestly in front of carefully selected groups of supporters that emphasise the breadth of their appeal. They fear that things will go wrong, that they’ll become a laughing stock after falling over on the beach, eating a bacon sandwich or simply holding a banana. 

But Johnson seemed to thrive on it. Much of his charm lay in the schoolboyish glee with which, informed he simply wasn’t allowed to drive the truck, or tram, or taxi that he was posing in, he would nonetheless put it into gear and put his foot down. Might things go wrong? All to the good, because it would put him at the centre of attention. Johnson approached public life as though it were a reality TV show in which the worst crime of all was to be boring. 

Take his famous zipwire moment. Even had he not got stuck, it would not have been a dignified moment. James Bond might be able to look glamorous wearing a suit on a zipwire, but no one else does. Had Johnson whizzed happily from one end to the other, waving his plastic flags, he would still have been a comic figure. But with toned athletes running and jumping their way to glory in the London Olympics, no politician was going to get their picture in the paper that week by smiling and looking sensible. Johnson, stuck on a zipwire, provided one of the most memorable moments of the Games – and it was all about him.

Was it deliberate? You never knew. Much of the “Boris” persona was artifice: the hair ruffled up as he walked away from hairdressers, the tie deliberately askew. Journalists found him impossible to classify. Too likeable to be “controversial” – at least in the pre-referendum days – and too knowing to be “gaffe-prone”, he ended up just being good copy.

Voters liked the way he made them feel they were in on the joke

At the Conservative conference in 2006 he was rude about Jamie Oliver just after Cameron, then leader, had praised the TV chef. As media interest picked up, Johnson chose to hide out in the Tory press office, a spot literally surrounded by journalists. We all sat outside and waited for him to come out, chanting his name. At the time, we thought we were hunting him. Looking back, he was using us. The shadow higher education spokesman – that was all he was – set off down Bournemouth seafront at the centre of a mighty swirling crowd of photographers and reporters, getting the kind of attention normally reserved for movie stars. Over the next decade and a half, his moves to steal the limelight became a dominant theme of conferences. One of the best arguments for making Johnson Tory leader is that it stopped him from overshadowing whoever the leader was.

Many felt his unseriousness would keep him from the top job. His supporters took a different attitude: his haphazard manner was a feature, not a bug. Voters liked the way he made them feel they were in on the joke.

Those fans were right, but also wrong. He did enjoy the most astonishing recognition and cut-through. People really did think he was different from other politicians. His willingness to say the wrong thing was interpreted as honesty (an error not made by those who knew him better). One Tory aide who conducted focus groups kept going north, looking for the point where antipathy to posh southerners overwhelmed the Boris charm. It was, he said, pretty much at the Scottish border. 

The mistake was to assume that chaos would disappear in Number 10. Although it was Johnson’s critics who tended to loudly tell people that “Boris” wasn’t the real man, his supporters believed this as well. Beneath the messy hair, they said, was a hard-working man with deep convictions.

He could indeed be a hard worker. Cummings, now one of the Prime Minister’s loudest critics, conceded that, in “self-aware mode”, conscious his career was on the line, Johnson was a fearsome and focused campaigner. But this wasn’t his default setting. 

In the early months of his time in Downing Street, aides described how Johnson enjoyed touring the country and being photographed in action, while they got on with running the country. Much of the time he governed as though he were writing a newspaper column: with an eye for a good tale, happy to change direction, and untroubled by details that got in the way of his preferred narrative. 

Sometimes it served him well. On Ukraine, he had a clarity of vision about what was happening, and what the West needed to do in response, that initially eluded other leaders. But too often it simply lent weight to Cummings’ damning description of Johnson as a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel, careering from side to side.

The last straw for Tory MPs was the struggle to give a straight answer over the appointment of Chris Pincher to the Whips’ Office. But dishonesty was only part of the Prime Minister’s problem.

His government faced big crises – Brexit and then Covid – but it was not brought down by these. The scandals that caused him the most trouble, from the Owen Paterson vote through the lockdown parties to Pincher, were problems entirely of Johnson’s own creation. A “girly swot” – as he disparagingly called Cameron – would have avoided them simply by being a bit more careful. 

Colleagues now speak openly of their frustration that issues weren’t gripped, that they were sent out to say things that turned out not to be true. None of this was a surprise to anyone who had followed his career, but somehow the Conservatives had persuaded themselves that Johnson would change, perhaps if he just got the right set of advisers.

At the end, the Prime Minister seemed scornful of the idea that he was being thrown out over his behaviour. The public had always got over such things in the past, and they would again. But Johnson had misjudged both the voters and his own ministers. The chaos did indeed mean they looked to the man in charge – and now they didn’t like what they saw.

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