The Rise and Fall of Boris Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Madrid, Spain, June 30.



The fall of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is one for the ages, a dramatic match for his personal charisma and the audacity he has shown in supporting the Brexit that brought him to power. His failure in office is also a warning to ruling Tories and Conservative parties around the world that ruling left in business is a losing strategy.

Mr Johnson led the Tories to a historic 80-seat majority in 2019 with a promise to push through Brexit after years of hesitation and division in the party. As the dispute with the European Union over Northern Ireland continues, the UK’s independence from the EU seems settled as a British political issue. He also saved Britain from Jeremy Corbyn’s radical Labor Party. That’s no small feat.

Mr Johnson resigned as party leader on Thursday and said he will remain Prime Minister until a Tory successor is elected. The immediate cause of his ouster is a series of scandals, starting with office parties while his government urged Britain to endure Covid lockdowns.

The problem wasn’t so much with the parties as with Mr Johnson’s string of dissimulations about them. The latest Tory rebellion came after Mr Johnson claimed he was unaware of allegations of sexual harassment by his deputy chief whip Chris Pincher. But he had known and promoted Mr. Pincher all the same.

Credibility is important for a leader, but the bigger cause of Mr Johnson’s downfall is the failure of his economic agenda. His goal was to forge a left-wing conservatism less focused on wealth and private enterprise and more focused on climate change, income redistribution and culture wars. The plan was to always run from the right, like Mr Johnson, but govern from the centre-left.

So he won an election, but he couldn’t govern. Voters expect conservative parties to be competent, and that expectation has been shattered as the costs and contradictions of Mr Johnson’s false conservatism add up.

In particular, he had no idea how to capitalize on Brexit and turn Britain into an economic island powerhouse. He planned to raise the corporate tax rate from 19% to 26% when he should have lowered it to attract investment. His government claimed it would be too difficult to cut EU-style regulations. The agenda to invest in the disadvantaged north of England never materialized and he seemed to have a redistribution in mind that wouldn’t have worked anyway.

Britain is now in the grip of an inflationary crisis which Mr Johnson has aggravated at every turn. Green taxes and regulations in support of Mr Johnson’s ambitions to be carbon neutral helped drive energy prices up. Household electricity and natural gas prices rose 54% in April and are expected to rise another 40% in October. This is affecting other prices and headline inflation is expected to exceed 10% later this year. Inflation is a political killer.

In the midst of this crisis, Mr Johnson raised the payroll tax by 2.5% to fund the National Health Service and he froze income tax brackets, leaving households with a significant tax hike as inflation pushes up nominal incomes. He refused to lower excise taxes or green taxes on petrol, diesel or household energy. He imposed a windfall profit tax on energy companies, threatening investment in new supplies from the North Sea.

The exception to this record is foreign policy. Mr Johnson has emerged as a strong and effective supporter of Ukraine since the Russian invasion, a key counterbalance to Germany’s Olaf Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron. The Kremlin applauds his fall.


The question is where the Tories are turning now to take the lead and whether they can revive the ailing economy in time to bail out their government against a Labor opposition that has lost its radical edge. Lawmakers have asked Mr Johnson to change course on taxation and regulation. The better choices to replace him, like Secretary of State Liz Truss and MP Tom Tugendhat, have become favorites in part because they have championed free-market policies, and Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace could improve his chances by doing the same does.

The Tories must quickly decide what they think they have learned from this episode. Other parties on the right can study Mr Johnson’s fall with more leisure, but with no less political education.

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