LONDON — Boris Johnson’s term as British leader was a mix of high drama and low disgrace. But he left office Tuesday with a casual shrug of a farewell: “Well, this is it, folks.”
The prime minister’s final speech outside 10 Downing Street, delivered before he offered his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II, was vintage Johnson – a quixotic blend of humor, classical erudition, ego and an elastic relationship with the truth. And it left many observers wondering whether this really is the end for a leader who has long defied political gravity.
“It was a classic Boris speech,” said Hannah White, acting director of the Institute for Government think-tank. “It was very much focused on him and his achievements. But I think that it is quite clear that he’s licking his wounds. He understands that if he steps away at this moment, he is going to continue to be an influential figure. And I think he will be biding his time.”
For Johnson fans, the speech was a moment to regret the departure of Britain’s most entertaining modern prime minister – and perhaps to nurture a flame for his return. For critics, it was a reminder of why his administration collapsed in scandal before it could fulfil Johnson’s lofty policy aims.
Not that you would have known that from Johnson’s words. He claimed big successes for his government, including leading Britain out of the European Union, overseeing Europe’s fastest COVID-19 vaccine rollout and sending weapons to Ukraine to help it resist Russia’s invasion.
Some of those achievements are debatable at best. Johnson says he “got Brexit done,” but the consequences of Britain’s messy, testy divorce from the European Union will roil both sides for decades. Britain did have a rapid vaccine rollout, but also one of Europe’s highest COVID-19 death tolls.
As in his debut speech as prime minister three years ago, Johnson painted a vision of the high tech, high-energy Britain of his dreams, a powerhouse in wind power and in scientific research and development. As with so much in his career, it was part reality, part aspiration.
Some of the successes he claimed are still in preliminary stages, such as three new high speed rail lines and “a new nuclear reactor every year.” Others, like reforming social care, remain thorny problems for his successor, Prime Minister Liz Truss.
And there was a bitter note amid the boosterism. Johnson spent his political career shrugging off outrage over his ethical lapses and offensive remarks, but was finally brought down when a scandal too far – over giving a government job to a lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct – triggered mass resignations in his government.
Johnson has made it clear he does not want to leave. He said, without explanation, that he was removed because his party “changed the rules half-way through.”
Nonetheless he turned to one of his beloved classical allusions to insist that he plans to retire gracefully.
“Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plow,” Johnson said, a reference to the Roman dictator who relinquished power and returned to his farm to live in peace.
Yet the allusion was ambiguous. Classicist Mary Beard pointed out that the ancient story has a “sting in the tale.” Years later, Cincinnatus returned to power “to suppress a popular uprising by the underprivileged.
“So it’s a risky analogy,” she told the BBC.
Johnson insisted this really is the end of his leadership ambitions.
“I am like one of those booster rockets that has fulfilled its function, and I will now be gently re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down invisibly in some remote and obscure corner of the Pacific,” he said.
Former Conservative leader William Hague saw that as a melancholy image for a leader whose faults eclipsed his attributes.
“He was a rocket booster on which the guidance system failed,” Hague told Times Radio. “He was this great soaring thing in politics, an extraordinary thing, which unnecessarily went wrong. And that is a tragedy for the country and the Conservative Party and for him.”
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