Boris Johnson’s Fall

The former dean of Christ Church, Oxford says the ex-prime minister’s sins were always going to catch up with him

June 09, 2023
William Blake’s illustration of The Temptation and Fall of Eve. Image: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo
William Blake’s illustration of The Temptation and Fall of Eve. Image: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

For many people, news that Boris Johnson is to stand down as an MP will prompt joy and celebration. The sight of him ducking and weaving in front of the parliamentary Privileges Committee was enough to make even his most seasoned fans squirm. Now he looks to have been chucked out of politics for good. His ignominious fate completes a perfect modern parable.

Yet in many respects, what is playing out is highly reminiscent of another, much older story. In the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, we read of Adam’s disobedience. Or, if you prefer to deflect blame, we read of Eve being tempted and then persuading Adam to succumb. This act of eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge instantly triggers shame and guilt. Yet many Jewish and Christian interpreters of the fable believe that the original sin is not disobedience, or even some weak-willed succumbing to the serpent’s seduction. The original sin is, rather, contempt.

Genesis records Adam and Eve’s epiphany when they realise they are naked. In a hopeless effort to cover their shame and sense of disgrace, they sew fig leaves together to shield themselves. (If you ever try and repeat this experiment, you’ll quickly find the result is futile, flimsy and funny.) The two of them quickly recognise the utter folly of this early experiment in organically-sourced clothing, so they hide. God has the last laugh, cobbling together some all-weather clothes for them made from animal hides, and sending them on their way. The fig-leaf experiment is never mentioned again in scripture.

As parables go, the story of the Fall is a compelling drama, and versions of this trope have found their way into ancient myths, sagas, folklore, Shakespeare—all the way through to modern blockbusters such as Succession

Hubris trips you up. Pride comes before a fall. We should, all of us, strive for integrity, probity and honesty, and this is especially true if we wield power or enjoy privilege. If individuals—or institutions—blame others for their own fiascos, refusing to accept responsibility, it only adds to the sense that they are serving themselves. Reputation management can be futile. As Jesus says in the gospels, “everything now covered up will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear.” (Matthew 10:26).

The first sin was contempt: a belief that God and the law need not be relied upon. Rules, obedience and compliance were irrelevant. Adam and Eve assumed we could do better if we helped ourselves a bit more—and depended upon God and the law a little less. If it goes wrong, blame a third party—a serpent—or blame each other (“she made me do it”). The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Abiding by our laws is essential if we hope to maintain social order.

When people sense that a government or their leaders are choosing to regard and treat others with contempt, seeds of revolt begin to germinate. Any institution—whether it be parliament, the police, a university, a church or even a marriage—can survive a crisis, and cope with competing convictions—even flourish in spite of them—if each party stays faithful and true to the other, to their greater good, and to shared integrity.

But we cannot live with contempt, whether it’s contempt for the public, the law, or basic standards of honesty and integrity. In the end, the truth comes out. Lies are exposed for what they are: vain attempts at concealment. Fig leaves are futile.

Today, Johnson’s fall has arrived, and the only question is what the consequences might be. We can probably rule out a second coming, let alone a return to some pre-fall state akin to Eden. By choosing to leave parliament, Johnson has pre-empted the inevitable divine judgment. Like Adam and Eve, expulsion had to be his fate.