It was Donald Trump who hailed Boris Johnson as a soulmate immediately after he won the leadership contest in July 2019. “They call him Britain Trump,” the former US president mused approvingly, with his characteristic rhetorical sloppiness.
Even at the time, the comparison held water. Johnson came to office as an insurgent, shattering convention and breaking the political mould. Winning the Brexit vote and then promising to deliver it, he had no truck with diplomatic niceties or the Westminster establishment. For Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp”, read Johnson’s zeal for defying the Brussels elite to force through what his supporters had voted for.
What Johnson couldn’t have foreseen was how it would all end, with a refusal to respect the rules, both written and unwritten. You can see why some are saying it’s Trumpian.
Mass ministerial resignations, a quiet word from trusted members of the cabinet, a visitation from the men in grey suits – until finally, it was over.
Johnson resisted until the very last – claiming he owed his mandate to the people not the politicians, just as Donald Trump saw the mob outside the Capitol as “his people”.
It’s important not to get carried away with the parallels. Johnson wasn’t inciting unrest, but his initial refusal to bow to the inevitable scared his MPs, who feared he was endangering both his party and democracy more widely.
Veteran MP Sir Charles Walker told me on last night’s Channel 4 News: “The really important thing for everyone in No 10 to understand, who is in that bunker, is you cannot govern without a government… you have to just stop. It’s over, it’s finished: it is the end of the road! This is finished and someone needs to tell him that.”
His colleagues clearly feared he’d debased the office of the prime minister and diminished the party’s reputation through his reckless rule-breaking. They were worried that by challenging the conventional (though unwritten) rules of departure, he’d escalated rebellion to a whole new level.
As one senior MP told me last night: “This is all becoming very worrying. This is madness. He is attempting a coup! We are having a coup!”
This was truly historic stuff.
Of course, Johnson had already secured his place in the pantheon of British premiers who have left a mark on history, remaking the UK’s place in the world through Brexit, then defying political gravity with his 2019 landslide election win.
But his shortcomings have been pretty noteworthy too. He was the first British prime minister to break the law in office. And two-and-a-half years after that election landslide, we saw a record-breaking tsunami of ministers quitting in the hopes of prising him from the seals of office.
Both in his successes and his failures he’s been an exceptional prime minister, and that exceptionalism is crucial to his own personal mythology. Like Trump, it licensed him to consider himself different, and therefore exempt from the usual rules.
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It’s a superpower that became a fatal flaw. As the cabinet, junior ministers and backbench MPs alike deserted him, both friend and foe – with the possible exception of culture secretary Nadine Dorries – privately or publicly acknowledged Johnson’s premiership was drawing to a close. And so it has become.
Across the ocean Trump is plotting a return, even as a congressional committee lays bare the full scale of the Capitol insurrection. Will Britain’s Trump make a comeback too? British politics is a very different proposition, even if Johnson’s behaviour in the last few hours did, as some of his MPs say, border on the presidential.
Few, though, would doubt that Johnson has a long and highly lucrative alternative career ahead of him.
Books, speeches, TV shows beckon. And here’s a thought: Johnson was born in America and only renounced his US citizenship a few years back. It’s a stretch, but perhaps he’ll end up playing Trump at his own game in his backyard.
Cathy Newman is presenter and investigations editor for ‘Channel 4 News’
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