In boris johnson’s office at 10 Downing Street, a vista of London hangs above the fireplace. The work was painted by his mother, Charlotte Wahl, who died four months ago at the age of 79, having lived long enough to see her son become prime minister and then win an election by such a margin that it seemed to have ushered in a new era in British politics: the Johnson era.
For Wahl, it must have been a proud moment, and perhaps confirmation that whatever difficulties she suffered during Johnson’s childhood, she had done well by him. When Johnson was young, Wahl had a mental breakdown that resulted in her spending months in a London hospital, while her children remained in Brussels. Wahl’s deep grief about this is expressed in a series of paintings that she produced during her stay at the Maudsley hospital. In one haunting image, Wahl depicts her and her husband, Stanley, along with their four children, all of them dangling by their arms with scared looks on their faces. The painting is titled The Johnson Family Hanged by Circumstances.
Today, Johnson’s political future is hanging as precariously as he is in that image, and because of circumstances entirely of his own making.
As I write this, the British prime minister is caught up in a political scandal of such extraordinary power and emotional resonance that within the next few weeks or months, he may be forced from office. This is despite the fact that he is barely two years into a five-year Parliament, having won in 2019 the biggest Conservative majority in 30 years.
The scandal is this: While the rest of the country was under some degree of lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, Johnson attended various “parties” or gatherings at 10 Downing Street, where he works and lives with his wife and children. While, under British guidelines, ordinary members of the public were only allowed to meet one other person outside, officials in Downing Street got together to socialize. While people were not allowed to visit their dying friends and family in hospitals and care homes, Johnson and his wife were at a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden with about 40 aides.
At the moment, a senior civil servant—independent of Johnson’s government—has been tasked with investigating all of these parties. More than 10 events appear to have taken place on government property. Some of the gatherings are being examined to discover exactly what happened, who attended, and whether officials broke any laws at the time.
The report is expected to be published in the next few weeks. If it finds Johnson personally culpable of breaking the law, the pressure for him to go might become unmanageable, as Conservative members of Parliament, fearful for their seat during the next election, move against him. Yesterday, the Conservative Party’s leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross, became the first senior Tory to call for Johnson to resign. That may already be enough to tip Johnson over the edge. Any criminal investigation by the police into the “socially distanced drinks” in the Downing Street garden might be the final straw.
If Johnson is forced from power, it would be a political and personal failure unprecedented in modern British politics. Since 1945, no other prime minister at this stage of the electoral cycle, having won such a convincing majority, has suffered such a quick fall from grace. Prime Minister Anthony Eden, previously Winston Churchill’s wartime foreign secretary, resigned in 1957, two years after winning a majority. But Eden did so because of a unique combination of illness and foreign-policy failures after the Suez Crisis, a foundational moment of humiliation in postwar British politics. To many people, of course, Brexit is a similar disaster, but that is not why Johnson is under pressure. On the contrary, in fact, his power and popularity were based on his promise to “get Brexit done.”
The only British historical parallel of any merit that I can think of is the fall of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, whose popularity after leading the country to victory in World War I led some Conservatives to remark that he could be “prime minister for life” if he wanted. Within three years, though, he had resigned, after a series of scandals undermined his support from the public, prompting the Conservative Party to withdraw its support from the coalition he was leading.
A better comparison, though, is Richard Nixon, a man of extraordinary political gifts—far more so than Johnson—laid low by a scandal that came to represent all of his character flaws, which everyone already knew about. Watergate eventually toppled Nixon in 1974; just two years earlier he had won in a landslide of such crushing proportions, winning every state but Massachusetts, that it is barely conceivable today.
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The Shakespearean drama of Nixon’s slow political asphyxiation is like nothing else in modern democratic history: a subtle weaving of personal tragedy, human weakness, criminal folly, and natural justice, with a denouement almost made for TV. In comparison, Johnson’s Watergate—“Partygate,” as it is now known—is low-grade, cheap, and almost pathetic in its smallness, but with all the same ingredients of tragedy, weakness, folly, and natural justice.
Yet Johnson does not have to commit a “high crime or misdemeanor” to be forced out. The key to remember is that Britain, unlike the United States, is a parliamentary system, which means that a prime minister is only as powerful as his command of the House of Commons and, by extension, his party. Johnson’s only hope right now is that he can persuade his party to hold the line until the onslaught is over and pray that no new revelations come to light. For Johnson, though, like Nixon before him, the reality is that he is no longer in control.