Unmasked. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty

June 12, 2023   8 mins

Early one spring morning during the pandemic, I was in the Queen’s private plane on the tarmac of Belfast International Airport watching Boris Johnson frantically searching for the No. 10 mask his team wanted him to wear. He was full of “Ahs!” and “Ohs?” and “I must have it here somewheres!”, as he emptied his pockets. Then, he found one. He pulled out one of those blue-and-white disposable masks that you are only supposed to wear once and then throw away. This one looked like it had been used before.

Luckily, one of his aides had brought a spare and handed it over. “Ah, sorry,” he mumbled apologetically before disembarking. As I followed him down the steps, I noticed the straps of that unwanted blue mask hanging out of his jacket pocket, flapping in the wind.

I often think back to this moment when reflecting on everything that has happened since: the scandal and resignation, the attempted comeback and, finally, his angry, conspiratorial departure from parliament last week. For me, the Belfast airport mask has become a kind of metaphor, representing both Johnson’s own chaotic nature and that of his premiership. It has become the scene I return to as I consider those strange months in 2021, when the country was in various states of lockdown and I was spending my time going in and out of Downing Street to profile the prime minister.

Never during this time did I witness any overt rule breaking — no parties nor secret gatherings, no bottles of wine, no abandoned slices of cake. But what I did see was a strange performative obedience to the rules that differed inside and outside No 10, as typified by this moment in Belfast, and which, I think, helps to explain the extraordinary rise and fall of Boris Johnson.

It is worth pausing, though, to reflect on the extraordinary arc of his story. Three and a half years ago, Johnson won the biggest Conservative majority for 40 years. A month later, he took Britain out of the European Union. And a few months after that, almost died of Covid-19. By March 2021, when we arrived in Northern Ireland, Johnson seemed unassailable: here was a Prime Minister with an 80-seat majority, leading Labour in the polls, and seemingly on course for a decade in power.

Johnson talked openly to me about needing a long time in power to deliver his agenda. And yet, today, he is not only not Prime Minister, but he is no longer a Member of Parliament. His political career seems dead.

There has never been a fall from power quite as spectacular. Perhaps Anthony Eden is the most obvious parallel; he left office after the disaster of Suez but upon the order of his doctors. A better example, I think, might be David Lloyd George, the “dynamic force” of his age who could not grow old gracefully. In truth, though, neither Eden nor Lloyd George’s downfall were quite as absurd, complete or sudden as Johnson’s.

My trip to Northern Ireland came at a time when fairly draconian restrictions about what you could and could not do were still in place. Only a few weeks earlier, the prime minister had announced a “roadmap” out of lockdown: for the first time, it was possible to meet one other person outside your household for “coffee on a bench or a picnic in a park”. Looking back, what strikes me is just how all-consuming these rules had become — and yet, when I crossed the threshold into No 10, or joined the prime minister on a visit, a sense of normality reasserted itself.

I still remember the feeling of unease as I sat on the flight to Belfast maskless; a feeling that disappeared remarkably quickly as normality reimposed itself. To join the trip, everyone had been tested in a room set aside in some discreet corner of Downing Street: none of us had Covid on the flight. Yet even though we had been travelling maskless inside a flying metal tube, once we arrived, Johnson had had to put on his mask to go outside. This was the theatre of the absurd we were all inhabiting at the time.

I don’t offer this memory as an excuse for the revelations about Johnson’s behaviour which would eventually cost him his job, though perhaps I do offer it as some kind of atmospheric mitigation. The truth is, once you crossed the threshold of No 10 during the pandemic, you really did feel as though you were entering a different world. This is not just because of a failure of leadership, though of course that existed. It is because during this time, when the rest of us were sat at home figuring out how to escape our houses within the rules, in Downing Street, a large group of people were working together in close proximity every day, catching Covid, taking tests, travelling on public transport. Evidently, this bred a degree of complacency — and, I would argue, quiet contempt — for the rules they themselves were setting. The fact is, Johnson was plainly imposing rules on others that he himself did not believe in. He saw their absurdity and could not bring himself to play along convincingly.

This, I think, lies at the centre of what would become known as “Partygate”, the scandal which would cost him everything. The irony of Johnson’s fall is that it can be explained, in part, because he failed in the performance of the job as much as anything. On the plane in Northern Ireland, Johnson was only doing what he had always done: a daily, performative mockery of authority. Only this time, he was the authority — they were his rules.

The thing is, a central part of the job of any prime minister is performative: projecting qualities such as empathy and bravery, understanding and control. Being prime minister is about much more than bureaucratic management or efficient decision-making. In moments of national crisis, a prime minister has to shape people’s understanding of what is happening to them and to show them how things will improve.

During the Manchester terror attacks in 2017, Theresa May remained behind closed doors, working as hard as she could to keep people safe. In many ways, it was admirable. Yet, by staying in London rather than joining mourners in Manchester, she failed in her job. She was still acting as Home Secretary, not Prime Minister. What is odd, reflecting on Johnson’s premiership, is that so did he, albeit for very different reasons.

The philosopher John Gray told me that the key to understanding Johnson was that the “mask has moulded to the face”.  Just as we all have our public and private personas, so does Johnson. But with him, the chaos and mockery, jokes and shallowness, are both real and performative. This is the key to understanding Johnson. He uses chaos to distract; but he is also chaotic to the point at which he undermined his entire premiership.

Johnson once described Benjamin Disraeli as “the greatest of all Tory magicians”, the heir to what he saw as his conservative tradition — and with some justification. Disraeli’s greatest biographer, Lord Blake, described him as “a slightly mocking observer surveying with sceptical amusement the very stage upon which he himself played a principal part”. It is hard to think of a better description of Johnson himself. For Disraeli, this performance “aroused an inextinguishable repugnance among those moderate, serious, high-minded middle-of-the-road men” who dominated British politics. The same is true for Johnson. As Disraeli himself wrote: “The British People being subject to fogs and possessing a powerful Middle Class require grave statesmen.” The problem for Johnson was that he was never a grave statesman.

For a long time, the times were not grave, and Johnson’s mocking observations worked for him. I remember the moments after he bounded down the stairs in Belfast, straight into the meet and greets that are a prime minister’s daily life, offering almost clownishly over-performed elbow bumps, making everyone laugh. I noticed that whenever he left a group of people, they would immediately begin laughing with each other as they chatted, spirits lifted by their brief encounter with celebrity buffoonery.

Johnson’s mocking cynicism was both his superpower and his shield. Writing in the LRB a decade ago, the novelist Jonathan Coe spotted that Johnson was the inevitable product of decades of cynical satirical humour in which politicians were treated as nothing better than absurd blowhards. “These days, every politician is a laughing-stock,” Coe wrote, “and the laughter which occasionally used to illuminate the dark corners of the political world with dazzling, unexpected shafts of hilarity has become an unthinking reflex on our part, a tired Pavlovian reaction to situations that are too difficult or too depressing to think about clearly.” Johnson’s skill was to understand this and to get in on the act, becoming his own satirist, safe in the knowledge that “the best way to make sure the satire aimed at you is gentle and unchallenging is to create it yourself”. But as the late Barry Humphries put it, when everyone is being satirical and everything is a send-up, “there’s an infuriating frivolity, cynicism and finally a vacuousness” to life. And into this vacuousness came Johnson.

While Coe gets close as to the source of Johnson’s power, I think he misses a wider point. Poking fun at the hommes sĂ©rieux of our world was particularly attractive because of the failures of these serious men (and women). Johnson rose to prominence in the world that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union, when ideological disputes seemed to have been settled and political battles were apparently being fought along managerial lines: about what worked and who was most competent to manage the system. It was a time of great hope and great projects: letting China into the WTO, expanding the EU, using Western military might to change the world — all apparently un-ideological and “evidence-based” but in fact just as faith-based as any other project in history.

Yet this world gave us the Iraq war, the 2008 financial crisis, the implosion of the Arab world, mass, unexpected immigration, austerity and eventually Brexit. After 2016, Johnson rose to prominence mocking the egos of the establishment that presided over this mess, eventually grabbing power at the height of its failure. His opportunity came because of the failures of the political class at home and abroad.

One of Johnson’s problems — perhaps his inescapable problem — is that he then became part of that failed political class. Only for so long can a prime minister wink at voters with wry, sceptical amusement at the unseriousness of his own government.

His brand of wry, mocking humour no longer suits the age. The world has moved on, but Johnson has not. Take a look at his resignation statement on Friday — a document that sounded far more like it was written by Donald Trump, full of conspiratorial anger and recrimination, than the old Boris Johnson. But Johnson without the humour is not so potent. And besides, Johnson himself no longer seems to represent the kind of insurgent populism he is now positioning himself to embody — his message neither populist nor popular.

Trump, that other populist who uses humour as a political weapon, in contrast, rails against China and puberty blockers, far-away wars and the Washington elite. His message and his humour has not changed. Johnson, however, talks as if the conservatism he stood for was some kind of conservatism of old: free-trade deals and tax cuts. This is the message many in his party want to hear, but not what won him power. Where is the Johnson who put up taxes and demanded a more interventionist Treasury to “level up” the country?

Oddly, Trump’s humour has aged better than Johnson’s — that of the playground bully, not the wry observer. Trump’s is brutal, crude, powerful, effective and as potent as ever. Johnson, on the other hand, seems to have lost his, at least for now. He is too angry to maintain the performance.

It would be unwise to rule out Johnson completely. Like Lloyd George, Johnson is a “dynamic force” who remains popular among Conservative party members. And as Stanley Baldwin put it, dynamic forces are terrible things. Should Labour make good on its poll lead today and win the next election, there will no doubt be a clamour for Johnson to return among some members of the Tory party

Johnson’s great skill was to be able to harness the populist revolt without losing his old “middle-of-the-road men” of England who the Conservative Party had long relied on. In this he was helped enormously by the figure of Jeremy Corbyn and the failures of parliament to enact the result of the referendum. Yet this trick looks impossible for him to pull off again. Johnson without humour is a different beast altogether; Johnson without humour and populism is even more so. We sank giggling into the sea; I’m not sure you can do so twice.

is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.