On Boris Johnson’s Premature Ejaculation from No. 10
Boris Johnson has been forced to resign because of character flaws that his ex-wife—not the mid-life crisis, baby mama—could have better advised. If only the PM got a reversible vasectomy, his political fortune would be better. Tweet
“Every prime minister needs a Willy,” Margaret Thatcher once said, referring to her deputy, Willie Whitelaw, not the piece of male anatomy she didn’t have. Boris Johnson had the opposite problem. Having announced his decision to quit a little over two weeks ago, he’s doing what boys will do. A week later, the outgoing prime minister was filming himself giving a thumbs-up in the cockpit of an RAF Typhoon fighter jet. A Downing Street spokesman later explained that he needed to fly a jet so he would be able to direct the RAF “in the worst case scenarios.” We’re expected to believe that? There’s nothing wrong with a resigning prime minister having some fun.
A week later, Johnson was visiting a British army base in North Yorkshire training Ukrainian soldiers. There he gave a rousing speech and was filmed hurling a grenade and looking through the sight of an anti-tank missile launcher – Britain has supplied Ukraine with 6,900 anti-tank missiles. Johnson gives every appearance of having the time of his life in the remaining six weeks or so of his premiership.
It shouldn’t be ending this way, at least, not so soon. Less than three years ago, Johnson won an unexpected landslide in the daring general election he’d called for December 2019. Not only was the Conservative share of the vote the highest since Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979, but Johnson also joined Thatcher and Tony Blair as the only three party leaders since 1945 to have opened up a double-digit percentage lead in the popular vote over the losing party.
Thatcher did that twice (in 1983 and 1987) and Blair once, in 1997, with a 12.5% lead that consigned the defeated Conservatives to a rump party that went on to lose the next two elections. In 2019, Johnson enjoyed a 11.5% lead in the popular vote over Labour. And, following the examples of Thatcher and Blair before him, Johnson had every reason to believe that he, too, could win two more elections and enjoy a decade or longer in No. 10.
Instead, he blew it. Britain’s most talented politician since Blair is counting the days to his final trip from No. 10 along the Mall to Buckingham Palace and the end of his premiership.
Thatcher was ejected from No. 10 by her own MPs over the deeply unpopular poll tax and because her party was irreconcilably split over Europe – a problem Johnson settled by being on the winning side of the 2016 Brexit referendum and by his general election triumph three years later. Blair resigned because the Iraq War weakened his ability to withstand the demands of his rival and erstwhile friend Gordon Brown that Blair resign to make way for him.
Johnson’s fall is different. Unlike his two illustrious predecessors, the cause of his downfall is personal, rather than political – and, in particular, Johnson’s attitude toward the truth. In 2013, Johnson told the audience of the Melbourne Writers Festival in Australia that when things are really tough, and he’s looking into the jaws of a crocodile, he likes to recite lines of Homer’s The Iliad, in the original ancient Greek – and proceeded to demonstrate it. There can be only a handful of people in Britain who can perform such a feat of memory.
Of all Homer’s heroes, perhaps it is Odysseus, hero of The Odyssey, whom Johnson most resembles, at least when considering their views of the efficacy and ethics of fidelity to the truth. Homer repeatedly describes Odysseus as a trickster, deceiver, and liar, words that have also been used to describe Johnson. For the ancient Greeks, this was praise. It is Odysseus’s intelligence and capacity for deception that wins him the favor of the most powerful gods. Twelve ships set out on Odysseus’s ten-year voyage. All their crews perished, except for Odysseus, who benefitted from the guidance and protection of Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
Johnson was not so blessed. His protectress through the foreshortened journey of his premiership was Carrie Symonds, a mistress who became his wife – in the process, costing him the counsel of his long-time wife and mother of four of his children, Marina Wheeler. It was a fateful development.
It is hard to believe that Wheeler would have tolerated the illegal partying that took place in Downing Street during the Covid lockdowns. A successful lawyer, Wheeler would have appreciated the danger of the tissue of lies Johnson told Parliament about turning a difficult, but containable, problem into a potentially fatal one. By the time allegations that a government whip had groped two of his male colleagues and Johnson had characteristically lied about what he knew and when he knew it, the prime minister was like a wasp-eaten piece of fruit dangling from a tree. His crew mutinied, and that was the end.
For a mistress to become a wife, children are necessary – they create a permanent barrier between past and future. A man incapable of fathering children is a much less attractive prospect to a young, ambitious woman. How different would history be if Johnson had recognized the benefits of voluntary infertility? “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” Shakespeare has the doomed Richard III cry. Similarly, it can be said of Boris Johnson that he lost his kingdom for want of a snip.