Everyone seems shocked about how Boris Johnson dug his heels in and refused to resign over claims that he condoned sexual misconduct allegations. The fact that he believed he had an ounce of support and popularity left after so many high-profile resignations and condemnations seemed absurd — laughable, even. But as members of Parliament, journalists and the electorate continue to act baffled that Johnson thinks he’s able to escape accountability, they seem to have also forgotten that Johnson’s been able to do just that countless times in the past — and worse than that, they let him.
In 2018, the same year he resigned from then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet in protest of Brexit, Johnson was given a cushy job alongside his position as backbench MP to write a series of articles for right-wing broadsheet The Telegraph. One such article, framed as “satire,” included Johnson comparing Muslim women wearing burkas to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes.”
Resigning MPs, columnists and former Tories can talk all they like about integrity and the importance of speaking up against sexual harassment — but the truth is, it’s only because now it is convenient.
Like many of his problematic comments and behavior, Johnson never apologized for this. Instead, he did what he always does, putting on his figurative clown makeup to charm his way out of accountability. When the press showed up at his house asking if he would apologize for the Islamaphobic remarks, he appeared with a platter of teacups, cheerily offering reporters a cup of tea. Isn’t that funny of him? Another classic Johnson hijinks! The press and public laughed along, and his deeply disturbing behavior was again buried and forgotten.
He ran for leader of the Conservative Party and won just over a year later.
Johnson’s legacy will be one of entitlement and arrogance: qualities he showed until the bitter end. Anybody else would have resigned long before he experienced a mass exodus of MPs, but Johnson believed so deeply in his own hype and was so confident that the public would continue to love him that he didn’t see any need to relinquish his power — after all, the public, politicians, and the media had forgiven him for countless of unforgivable mistakes, so why would this latest scandal be any different?
The older generation loved him because he replicated the bumbling, awkward, loveable rogue archetype seen in British sitcom characters like 1970’s Basil Fawlty and 1980’s Del Boy, the likes of which characterized calling out racism and sexism as the pathetic snowflake generation at it again. The younger generation — my generation — loved him because he was the living, breathing embodiment of “lad culture”: where being willing to make yourself look a bit of an idiot by ziplining in a Union Jack hat (Johnson did this in 2012 when he was London’s mayor) or tackling a child (he did this in 2015) in a charity rugby match granted you automatic “legend” status.
Neither of those Borises seemed real; they were different caricatures tactically molded to suit different generations — but one thing these caricatures never did was attempt to hide the kind of person Johnson was.
Even before he became prime minister in 2019, he had a highly publicized list of misdeeds. His Islamophobia was bad enough, but it’s barely the tip of the iceberg: in another Telegraph column in 2002, he referred to Black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles.” He’s referred to gay people as “bum boys” in tank tops. In 2004, he published misinformation about the Hillsborough disaster. He’s even fabricated a quote in The Times. Johnson conspired (on tape) to physically attack a journalist in 1990. He allegedly misused public money as London mayor. Not to mention the number of misogynistic and sexually charged remarks he’s made both in his writing and orally.
This is why I refuse to buy into the shock and outrage currently being exhibited by MPs, mainstream news outlets and a large chunk of the British electorate. Of course, many people within these groups have been incredibly outspoken against Boris Johnson for a long time. Still, a lot of the time, it felt like they were screaming into the void because, amidst all the desperate lies, there was one thing that Boris Johnson was right about: an extraordinary amount of people in the U.K. “backed Boris” in the 2019 general election.
In fact, the Conservatives won in an extraordinary landslide, with nearly 14 million people in the U.K. voting for the party — many for the first time. The fact that many people voted for Johnson and many MPs supported his career would have been easier to swallow if the media had buried his past abhorrent behavior. But none of his past misdeeds were secret, and he wasn’t just brazen about his actions: he was unapologetic too. But time and time again, his behavior was laughed off.
I don’t know if people were blind to his past or merely had selective vision, but the unprecedented support he received in 2019 must’ve conveyed a very clear message to him: You can have your cake and eat it, too.
For the longest time, that message seemed to be true, too. Despite the various misdeeds Johnson committed as prime minister, including the unconstitutional prorogation of Parliament, evading life-saving Covid-19 measures and failing to deliver vital PPE supplies to front-line workers, people’s faith in him never faded. His approval ratings might have fluctuated, but nowhere near as dramatically as one might have expected them to.
Resigning MPs, columnists and former Tories can talk all they like about integrity and the importance of speaking up against sexual harassment — but the truth is, it’s only because now it is convenient and palatable for them to do so. People wanted so badly to elect a politician with “personality,” perhaps thinking how hilarious it would be to be in their own episode of the British comedy “The Thick of It.” Now that we’re living it, the reality isn’t so fun. As much as I hate to admit it, maybe Johnson was onto something when he talked about “the herd” in his resignation speech.
We’re all complicit in the monster he became, and this disaster is one of our own makings. We’ll live with the consequences for years to come.