National Security & Defense

The Stunning Collapse of Boris Johnson

Johnson (right) with Gove at a “Vote Leave” rally in London, June 19, 2016. (Dominic Lipinski/Reuters)
Once thought the front-runner for the U.K.’s prime minister, he has suddenly withdrawn.

Just when you thought this week couldn’t get any stranger, it did.

Boris Johnson, an architect of the Leave campaign, has long been considered one of the frontrunners for the leadership of the Tory party, even before Prime Minister David Cameron announced his eventual resignation last week. Johnson is the most popular politician in the country, a goofy and accessible man of the people, well placed to continue the Tories’ domination of the United Kingdom’s politics.

Until this morning, that is. When Johnson stood behind a podium, journalists viewed it as a speech to declare his entry into the leadership race against home secretary and Remain campaigner Theresa May. But it wasn’t. Instead, after ten minutes spent discussing the necessary policies of the next prime minister, and how and why Cameron’s successor must extricate the U.K. from the clutches of the European Union, Johnson announced that he would not stand – that he would not mount a challenge for the leadership.

The shock was palpable. After Johnson uttered the decisive line — “I have concluded that person cannot be me” — the cameramen in the room went into overdrive, clicking rapid-fire to document the moment of defeat in the face of the man once destined for 10 Downing Street. Johnson stumbled over his next line. For the following minute, he vowed to support a “moderate, conservative, one-nation approach” for his party and his country; it sounded more like an affirmation of David Cameron than anything else. Soon after, Johnson exited the stage, to applause and general clamor. The Guardian’s liveblog of the speech had begun with the headline “Boris Johnson launches his leadership bid.” Ten minutes later: “Johnson pulls out of Tory leadership contest.”

What is the simplest explanation for Johnson’s declining to run for the Tory leadership? He didn’t think he could win it.

Various theories have circulated around the journosphere in the week following Britain’s vote to leave the E.U. The triggering of Article 50 is considered a “poisoned chalice,” political quicksand destined to doom the career of whichever politician is foolish — or hubristic — enough to tread down that path. The process of actually leaving the E.U. would be so destructive, would embroil the country in so much turmoil, that only a political ignoramus would do it. Johnson knows this, the theory goes, as encapsulated in this well-circulated but analytically flawed Guardian comment. Johnson, valuing himself above all else and (it is thought) only tenuously committed to the Brexit cause in the first place, sought to wash his hands of the mess he had created. Johnson appears as a cynical, unethical mastermind, always looking out for himself and ignoring any obligation to the situation he had done so much to engender.

That’s a compelling read of the situation. It plays to what so many already suspect about Johnson: that he cares only for himself and is willing to ruin the economy and his friends’ careers for the sake of advancing his own. For many in the press corps who already detest the man, it fits nicely with the image they hold of Johnson in their preconceptions.

But maybe reality is less wicked than that. Occam’s razor, ever the bane of convoluted conspiracy theories, dictates that the simplest explanation for an occurrence is typically the correct one. And what is the simplest explanation for Johnson’s declining to run for the Tory leadership? He didn’t think he could win it. Polling released yesterday wasn’t favorable to him; it showed May with a substantial lead among the electorate of Conservative party members. If he did run, he would face an uphill battle, one in which defeat would be an abjectly humiliating experience to endure.

#share#That was yesterday, when the contest was still a two-horse race. But then Michael Gove upended everything. Gove — Johnson’s good friend, the U.K.’s current justice secretary, and a feared debater boasting a marvelous intellect — was the real mastermind behind the Leave campaign, and whereas Johnson betrayed some squeamishness about following through on Brexit after the vote, Gove has remained staunchly committed to the Leave cause. Gove had also repeatedly said over the last five years that he had no interest in becoming the leader of the Tory party – until this morning, when, evidently, he decided (possibly at the urging of his wife, Sarah Vine, in a relationship that bears ominous resemblance to House of Cards) that Johnson couldn’t be trusted with the job. Gove would therefore have to run himself. So run he did.

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It is a remarkable feat of political maneuvering, of well-timed disruption tantamount to back-stabbing, and a stunning rupture at the height of the Leave ranks. And it moved Johnson’s position in the race from bad to worse. Pro-Brexit MPs who had pledged for Johnson before Gove’s entry flocked to Gove, viewing him as a clearer, more logical, more intellectual figure than Johnson, who can at times seem, quite frankly, unhinged. Whatever chances he had of winning in the first place were greatly diminished in a race against May. And if a “leaked” e-mail from Vine, Gove’s wife, is to be believed, media mogul Rupert Murdoch dislikes Johnson and had begun to question his commitment to carrying out Brexit (Richard Dawkins recently said Johnson is the only hope of a second referendum) should he become prime minister. That e-mail, released yesterday in a presaging of what was to come this morning, also suggested that Johnson couldn’t be trusted, that one must have “specific assurances” from Johnson lest he break commitments and do whatever he fancies.

Thus Gove entered the race. Whether he will win, nobody can quite tell — the bookies have him as the second favorite, behind May, but polling of a five-person race with May and Gove as frontrunners has yet to be released. His chances of success are substantial, and it’s likely that pro-Leave Tories will unite behind him as their best chance to see the referendum’s result become reality.

#related#And where on earth does Johnson go from here? He staked his political career on the E.U. referendum, and he won. His political prospects looked like the “sunlit meadows” he insisted awaited the U.K. after severing the ties that bound it to the Continent. But he didn’t prepare for treachery, for Gove, his closest ally, turning on him. Maybe he should have — Gove turned on Cameron by declaring his support for Leave, after all — but he didn’t. Now those sunlit meadows are looking very bare indeed, and Johnson exists in a state of political limbo. He must surely hope that he will be offered a high-ranking position in a Gove or May cabinet, and his enduring political popularity may see to that.

Michael Gove, though, looks like a genius — a backstabbing, traitorous genius, hiding ruthlessness behind a veneer of Oxonian politeness, but a genius nonetheless, with a keen sense of strategy and timing. He has accomplished one of the more remarkable feats of political outflanking in recent years. First his efforts ruined David Cameron’s career; now he has thrust Johnson out into the cold. And with his ascendancy, Brexit, the fortunes of which have appeared shaky in recent days, now has a much better chance of success.

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