Boris Johnson is trying to paint himself as a populist hero—but he’s just scared of losing

The former prime minister’s bitter resignation letter does not suggest he is abandoning his political ambitions

June 10, 2023
Boris Johnson resigned on Friday. Image: Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo
Boris Johnson resigned on Friday. Image: Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo

Boris Johnson has always hated the idea that he is a British version of Donald Trump, but it is impossible to avoid the parallels between the two men this week. On Thursday, the former president denounced the criminal charges against him as a “witch hunt”, declaring: “I am an innocent man.” Last night, the former prime minister quit as an MP and condemned the parliamentary investigation that had found he misled parliament over the Downing Street parties as a “kangaroo court”. Insisting “I did not lie”, he chose to use the same language as Trump in his resignation letter. “I am not alone in thinking that there is a witch hunt under way, to take revenge for Brexit and ultimately to reverse the 2016 referendum result,” he wrote.

Narcissistic, petulant, childish, angry and bitter, there was no contrition, no apology for partying in Number 10 while others died and mourned alone during the pandemic. As ever, Johnson genuinely seems to believe that the rules do not apply to him—indeed, that rules are for “little people”, as I am told one of his supporters suggested to friends about the lockdown laws. He describes the investigation into him as a “political hitjob”. The system depends on politicians from all parties respecting the body set up to police the behaviour of MPs. By refusing to accept the verdict of the Commons privileges committee, he is treating parliament with contempt. 

Like Trump, Johnson presents himself as the victim of a mythical establishment, rather than taking responsibility for his own failings. Both men refuse to accept the rule of law, they offer their own version of “the truth”, they fuel conspiracy theories and they have unleashed chaos yet again on their parties and the country. And, of course, both still harbour political ambitions and are shaping narratives that they hope will get them back into power.  

Just as Trump pitches himself as the champion of the people, so Johnson is trying to hone his credentials as some kind of populist hero when he writes: “I am now being forced out of parliament by a tiny handful of people, with no evidence to back up their assertions, and without the approval even of Conservative party members let alone the wider electorate. I believe that a dangerous and unsettling precedent is being set.”

Nobody should think for a moment that Johnson sees his resignation as MP for Uxbridge & South Ruislip as the end of his political career. Quite the opposite. He himself insists that he is only leaving parliament “for now”. Indeed, he is quitting with immediate effect because he fears that he would lose a by-election in the now-marginal seat, which could be triggered if, as expected, the privileges committee recommends that he should be suspended for more than 10 days. 

Johnson likes to see himself as a winner. He has not lost an election for 26 years and he does not want to suffer that humiliation now on the back of a critical report from MPs. He would much prefer to find a safe seat from which to launch a new attempt to regain the Tory leadership while also cashing in on the after-dinner speaking circuit. The by-elections created—and seats freed up—by the resignations of Nadine Dorries in Mid Bedfordshire and Nigel Adams in Selby and Ainsty may come too soon, but there are plenty of MPs standing down at the general election who will be vacating constituencies with large Conservative majorities. 

Meanwhile, Johnson is carefully setting himself up as a figurehead for the Tory right—the prince over the water who can ride to the rescue of his party in its hour of need. In his letter, he presses every button for the Brexiteers: tax cuts, a free trade deal with the United States, scrapping EU directives. “Our party needs urgently to recapture its sense of momentum and its belief in what this country can do,” he writes. “We must not be afraid to be a properly Conservative government.”   

The newly honoured Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel will be thrilled, but it is a million miles from the liberal, centrist, optimistic position Johnson adopted as London mayor. As Will Walden, who worked for him at City Hall, told the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning: “He is a different person. There’s a bitterness, a pettiness, there’s no sense of proportion… He sees things only through the prism of anger and hurt and unfairness. For me, that’s sad, it’s tragic, but I also think it’s quite dangerous.” 

Johnson’s resignation is, of course, a threat to Rishi Sunak—just as Sunak’s own decision to quit the Cabinet proved fatal to Johnson’s premiership. The prime minister now has to fight not just three by-elections which he may well lose. He also has a rival with nothing to lose and everything to gain from undermining his every move. Boris Unleashed has even less need or desire to stick to the facts than Johnson on the backbenches. 

In his resignation letter, Johnson accused Sunak of betraying his legacy, claiming the prime minister had “passively abandoned” a free trade deal with the US—something that was never on offer under Johnson—and failing to make the most of Brexit. “We need in the next months to be setting out a pro-growth and pro-investment agenda. We need to cut business and personal taxes,” he wrote, conveniently ignoring the devastating impact of Liz Truss’s mini-budget, which did just that. Every phrase is designed to embarrass Sunak.

But the former prime minister’s exit from the Commons is also an opportunity for the current resident of Number 10. For too long Sunak has lived in fear of Johnson, a man whose charisma and political guile he lacks. He tried to build bridges with him by approving a resignation honours list that included rewards for a string of aides and allies who were embroiled in the Downing Street parties scandal. He tried to appease the Tory right who hanker after Johnson by appointing Suella Braverman to the Cabinet and talking tough on immigration. He has been haunted by the ghost of his predecessor throughout his time in Number 10 and he will pay a price for that at the polls.

Now Sunak has the chance to break with Johnson once and for all. 

When the privileges committee publishes its report, he should make clear that he will not allow his predecessor to stand as a Tory candidate at any forthcoming by-election or the general election. He should also stop trying to win over Johnson’s supporters by constantly tacking to the right, and instead start thinking of the wider electorate. He has the opportunity to show he is his own man. The question is: does Sunak want to emerge from Johnson’s shadow?