LONDON — For the first time in two decades, on Monday there was a blond, disheveled, stout-shaped hole at the heart of British politics.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's sudden and angry exit from Parliament — the latest stunning turn in the "partygate" scandal — means he now has no official role in political life for the first time since 2001.
It continues a remarkable fall for perhaps the most divisive figure of the United Kingdom’s modern history: from Brexit architect and Conservative Party talisman, to a scandal-plagued pariah who many colleagues hope is now gone for good.
This is a political epitaph that has been inscribed prematurely before, and it remains unclear if Johnson will somehow revive himself again. But many analysts suggested this really might be the end.
“I would deem it unlikely that Boris Johnson has a political future of much consequence,” Nick Dickinson, a Bingham Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the University of Oxford, told NBC News. “While Conservative activists retain a lot of affection for him, he remains extremely unpopular in the country as a result of the scandals which precipitated his fall from power."
'The world has moved on'
Johnson himself left open the possibility of yet another Lazarus-style comeback. “It is very sad to be leaving Parliament — at least for now,” he said in a bombshell statement Friday.
Johnson essentially quit before he could be fired, as the fallout from the scandal involving boozy parties held during Covid lockdowns threatened to leave him facing a recall vote he was likely to lose.
Some saw his charged remarks and shots at his rivals as an attempt to reignite a civil war within the ruling Conservative Party, but aside from a few minor resignations and supportive comments, his departure was greeted more with relief than rage.
"The world has moved on," Energy Secretary Grant Shapps told NBC News' British partner Sky News on Sunday.
Perhaps a sign of Johnson’s faded stature, even his shocking exit was partly overshadowed by the federal indictment of former President Donald Trump.
His time in office was characterized by extremes.
In 2019 he guided his party to its biggest electoral landslide since the 1970s, and got severely ill during the coronavirus pandemic while delivering one of the first widespread vaccination campaigns of the Western world.
At the same time he courted regular infamy, both personal and professional, which in the end was too much even for his allies.
The partygate scandal indirectly led to him stepping down as prime minister last year. And the same topic led to his departure Friday.
Johnson was being investigated by Parliament's privileges committee over whether he misled lawmakers about "partygate." The committee had the power to recommend Johnson be suspended for more than 10 days, potentially triggering a local election in which he would have to fight for his parliamentary seat.
Instead, after receiving the committee's findings, he resigned first.
In a statement, he branded the process a "kangaroo court" and a "witch hunt" led by "deeply prejudicial" lawmakers.
Though the committee is chaired by Harriet Harman, a veteran member of the opposition Labour Party, four of its seven members are from Johnson's own Conservative Party.
In response to the resignation announcement, the committee said Johnson had “impugned the integrity” of the House of Commons with his attack. It said it would meet Monday “to conclude the inquiry and to publish its report promptly.”
Illegally blond: Boris Johnson's political career
- June 2001 - elected member of Parliament
- Nov. 2004 - fired as senior official after affair allegation
- May 2008 - elected London mayor; reelected in 2012
- June 2016 - spearheads successful Brexit campaign
- July 2016 - appointed foreign secretary
- July 2018 - quits, criticizes Prime Minister Theresa May
- July 2019 - elected prime minister to replace May
- Sept. 2019 - suspends Parliament to push through Brexit legislation, suspension later ruled unlawful
- Dec. 2019 - wins landslide election victory
- Nov. 2021 - first partygate allegations surface, police later find Johnson broke the law
- July 2022 - resigns as prime minister
- June 2023 - resigns as member of Parliament
Johnson laced his parting message with a broadside toward current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a former rival who was instrumental in his downfall last year.
“When I left office last year the government was only a handful of points behind in the polls. That gap has now massively widened,” he said. “Our party needs urgently to recapture its sense of momentum and its belief in what this country can do.”
Johnson formally stepped down as a member of Parliament on Monday, Parliamentary authorities announced. He also Sunak of "talking rubbish" in a related dispute playing out in public.
The former leader's departure, and the seemingly connected resignations of two allies, creates a major headache for Sunak.
Trailing in the polls, he now faces contests for three Conservative parliamentary seats, offering momentum to Labour ahead of nationwide elections next year that it's projected to win.
Conservative poll ratings slipped into decline during the final months of Johnson’s tenure and have not recovered since, with Labour now frequently placing 20 points ahead.
It's far from the first time the Eton and Oxford-educated Johnson has left his post unceremoniously, having been fired by both British newspaper The Times in 1987 and then the Conservative Party in 2004 over alleged impropriety.
Nevertheless, his bombastic approach helped make him a household name as a lawmaker, mayor of London, foreign secretary and then prime minister. The self-declared liberal, branded a shameless opportunist by opponents, was also the chief Brexiteer in 2016.
“I don’t think they’d have won the referendum without him,” said Anand Menon, director of the London-based think tank U.K. in a Changing Europe. “He’s box office, he’s funny," and he's a "unique political communicator" who "has the gift of being able to talk to ordinary voters and sound like he’s one of them."
Despite his galvanizing influence on the Brexit vote, for many his legacy is of a country still unable to work out its relationship with the European Union, and a people suffering a generational cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by it.
Johnson's personal poll ratings have plummeted far beyond his party's.
“Even the majority of leave voters are now disappointed with what happened” about Brexit, said Pippa Catterall, an expert in constitutional and political history and policy at the U.K’s University of Westminster. “The deal with the E.U. was so bad that even his successor decided it needed to be torn up straight away.”
Johnson, she added, has done “enormous damage” to the Conservative party’s public image.
He may not get a chance to repair it or to do any more.