Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
“Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.”
These lines, from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” are of Malcolm telling King Duncan how the traitorous Thane of Cawdor confessed to his treasons, implored pardon and offered deep repentance before his execution.
But this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson didn’t apologize, didn’t ask for forgiveness and wasn’t repentant. He remained defiant to the end, and his manner of going was utterly in keeping with his character.
After a 24-hour period of unprecedented political turbulence, which saw over 40 government resignations, Johnson tried to brazen out yet another one of the many tempests to have rocked his premiership since the moment he stepped into No. 10, Downing Street as national leader.
This was the most front-rank ministerial resignations in a 24-hour period that any prime minister has suffered in British history — the previous record was set in 1932, when 11 senior ministers quit.
Throughout his career in media and politics, Boris Johnson reveled in his reputation as an escape artist | Pool photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images
But throughout both his career in media and politics, Johnson reveled in his reputation as an escape artist — a political Houdini, defying rules and conventions and getting away with it. At least this week he remained consistent.
Only twice before had he suffered punishment — once, being sacked by the Times for making up a quote, and in 2004, when then Conservative leader Michael Howard sacked him from a party job, after one story too many about his shambolic private life appeared in the press, with newspapers carrying yet more allegations about tawdry infidelity.
His skill as a roguish, gravity-defying escapologist was part of his appeal for many Britons who voted for him in the past. But the shine wore off, and this week, his daredevil qualities appeared more darkly Trumpian than rash, good-natured Prince Hal — and more dangerous for both his party and the country than at any other time in his tumultuous premiership, buffeted by endless toxic scandals, unforced errors and sleaze.
Britain has never seen such a chaotic prime ministerial exit before. Margaret Thatcher sought to hang on in 1990, after only narrowly winning a parliamentary party confidence vote. “I fight on, I fight to win,” she told reporters crowded in Downing Street. But even the Iron Lady turned and heeded her timid Cabinet as its members, one by one, traipsed into her House of Commons office to tell her gently that time was up.
At her final full Cabinet meeting the following day, her nervous ministers expected to be collectively upbraided. Instead, they found a philosophical, reflective prime minister who remarked at the start, “It is a funny old world.”
But there were no signs of anything philosophical about Johnson. Westminster was aghast Wednesday night upon learning he’d given short shrift to a group of senior Cabinet ministers who told him it was time to quit. The group included “loyalists” as well as Nadhim Zahawi, who Johnson had only appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer the day before amid a cascade of resignations.
In modern times, other departures while in office have been much more orderly affairs. In 1940, Neville Chamberlain resigned while in office in the early months of World War II, when it became clear that the opposition parties — as well as many Conservatives — would not join a national government if he were leading it.
Chamberlain took the devastating hint from Conservative grandee Leo Amery, who told him in the House of Commons: “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.” He was quoting what Oliver Cromwell had said when dissolving the so-called Long Parliament.
In January, veteran Conservative lawmaker and former Cabinet minister David Davis quoted Cromwell at Johnson too — but to little avail. Johnson doesn’t respond to hints, however scorching.
This was a problem for British governance, which is built largely on a jumble of norms and conventions and Acts of Parliament that are mostly held together by tacit rules rather than hard-and-fast regulations codified in a written constitution. And in both theory and practice, since the 19th century, overriding power has been held by the Cabinet, made up of the party that can command an effective majority in the House of Commons.
“The cabinet, in a word, is a board of control chosen by the legislature, out of persons whom it trusts and knows, to rule the nation,” noted scholar Walter Bagehot. And as time has marched on, the interplay between prime minister, the Cabinet and parliament has shifted and been tested many times over. In recent years, prime ministers have become more powerful, Cabinets more docile and parliament weaker, with the trend given a sharp push by Thatcher and Tony Blair.
But even Thatcher had ultimately understood when her time was up. Johnson, on the other hand, had a very different view until today— as brushing off his ministers Wednesday night demonstrated. His presidential view was that he had a mandate from the general election, which gave the Conservatives a thumping majority, and that even his own lawmakers have no right to override the British electorate — a highly eccentric and ahistorical reading of parliamentary conventions and practice.
Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, centre, speaks during a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing at Downing Street in London, England | Pool photo by Alberto Pezzali/Getty Images
But Johnson had form when it came to defying inconvenient norms of British political behavior.
In 2019, for example, he asked the country’s monarch to suspend parliament for a month, complicating attempts by opposition parties and rebel Conservative lawmakers to thwart his Brexit plans. He was accused of mounting a “coup against Parliament.”
Until then, the suspension of parliament, known as prorogation, was seen as a constitutional formality in which the legislature is suspended for a few days — generally every autumn — ahead of the government setting out a fresh parliamentary agenda in a speech delivered by the monarch.
The suspension was seen as a hardball Johnson gambit, which not only added another twist to the country’s long-running Brexit saga but risked upending the relationship between government and parliament. Britain’s Supreme Court quashed the prorogation, ruling unanimously that it was unlawful.
Three years later, Johnson’s Trumpian exit — his resistance, initially, to his own Cabinet — will likely have electoral consequences for the Conservatives. But it has also shone a blazing light on how dysfunctional government can be when underwritten by tacit rules and norms.