Opinion: Why won’t Boris Johnson and Donald Trump just go away?

Boris Johnson in a suit looks on seriously
A report released last week said that Boris Johnson misled Parliament over COVID-lockdown-flouting parties at his Downing Street office.
(Kirsty O’Connor / Associated Press)

Being bad has always come good for Boris Johnson. Scandals over plagiarism allegations, multiple affairs, an “Avatar”-length blooper reel of public blunders — disgrace is a boon for Britain’s Donald Trump, who is now well-versed in turning recklessness into riches. No surprise, then, that he did it again last week, when a major inquiry concluded that he had deliberately misled the U.K. Parliament multiple times during the pandemic via lockdown parties that defied the very laws he had created. On Monday, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to accept the report’s findings.

For these offenses, Johnson would have received a 90-day suspension from the local parliamentarian role he has retained since the end of his leadership last summer. Yet the government’s chief chaos merchant had other ideas: In a letter lambasting the “kangaroo court” that sought to bring him down, he resigned days before the investigation’s results were published. By the week’s end, he was unveiled as a new columnist for the Daily Mail, for which he could earn a reported $1.2 million per year, a healthy addition to the $6 million he received in the six months after stepping down as prime minister.

His detractors insist that, megabucks aside, Johnson’s exit this time around will be his last. They appear to have forgotten, however, that England’s former overlord is unscalpable. At the same time his critics publicly cheered his demise in the Commons, he gave a speech to a conference where he reportedly told the crowd that there is “always another innings.” You can’t exile the inexorable, after all.


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Politics is a popularity contest, and Johnson — to use Trump’s parlance — always comes out “winning.” Like his U.S. equivalent, Johnson mixes affability and self-styled man-of-the-people-ness with a penchant for chaos that other leaders could neither stomach nor come back from. His three-year prime ministerial reign included being investigated for giving public funds to an American businesswoman (who claimed they’d had an affair), ignoring a report that stated one of his most senior colleagues was bullying staff, accusations that he spent some $74,000 of political donors’ money redecorating his home, and becoming the first prime minister to be punished for breaking the law while in office (alongside many other indiscretions).

Johnson is only ever at one of two extremes — in political peril or staging a comeback — and that’s exactly how he, and the masses perennially entertained by the show, like it. He is well-aware that every dramatic exit and return serves to build his notoriety — the febrile conditions that keep Trump in favor, too.

A Marist poll last week put Trump’s approval rating among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents at 76%, up 8 points since February — in spite of his many ongoing legal troubles. Johnson, for his part, is scoring twice as high among those who voted Conservative in the last general election than England’s current premier.

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Trump and Johnson share the same strategy: If you never admit defeat you can never be wrong, and saying that loud enough, enough times, will ultimately bring others around to the same conclusion. That both leaders came from reality television success (Johnson’s political rise is put down to his guest-hosting a satirical U.K. TV show) is no coincidence; they are highly attuned to the car-crash-to-underdog narratives that keep viewers hooked. They play apparent calamity to their advantage on and off the political stage. Since stepping down as prime minister, Johnson has remained a dinner party circuit regular, retooling his indiscretions as well-paid anecdotes delivered over port and cheese.

Being ousted has led neither to retreat, but rather granted them a full-time position in public consciousness — minus the scrutiny of being in office.

The inquiry’s findings are damning, but those who believe it’ll be the death knell for Johnson or his career are off the mark. The frequency of his transgressions has in fact helped to desensitize voters to what might once have been shocking — a phenomenon Trump has exploited ad infinitum. In this calendar year alone, Trump has become the first former U.S. president to face federal charges, was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, is being investigated for his role in the Capitol riots and potential election interference and was found liable for sexual abuse. After months spent pinballing from one suit to the next, he remains the Republican front-runner for 2024. Another White House win would make him downright untouchable.


When chaos is your calling card, there is simply no such thing as no return.

Charlotte Lytton is a journalist based in London.