Tuesday is Boris Johnson’s final day as prime minister of the U.K. — for now anyway — as Liz Truss takes over the top job in British politics. And for a man who was seemingly always destined (even if only in his own head) to become prime minister, not everything went according to plan during the just over three years Johnson was PM.
Here are some of the key missteps from the Johnson years (whittled down from a long list of several dozen).
He did what to parliament?
In August 2019, Johnson tried to do something to parliament: prorogue (a word we’d all definitely heard of before) it.
In layman’s terms, that’s discontinuing a session of parliament without dissolving it, which Johnson attempted to do for five weeks at the height of the Brexit crisis. He even asked the queen, and she said yes. Johnson said the reason for the suspension was that he wanted to present a new legislative agenda to the country and reassured MPs that parliament would still have “ample time” to debate Brexit.
It’s safe to say that Johnson’s opponents disagreed and were none-too-pleased at what they saw as him running away from parliamentary confrontations over leaving the EU.
In late September, the U.K.’s highest court ruled that Johnson’s decision was “unlawful.” Brenda Hale, the court’s most senior judge, said the court concluded the decision to advise the queen to prorogue parliament “was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification.”
Key quote: “If the prime minister persists with this and doesn’t back off, then I think the chances are that his administration will collapse,” then-Tory MP Dominic Grieve.
The pole-dancing ‘friend’
Johnson’s relationship with American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri — who said she had an affair with Johnson (before he was with his now-wife Carrie) as London mayor — came under great scrutiny in the fall of 2019 and was even referred to a police watchdog. It was alleged that Arcuri benefitted from her close friendship with Johnson as she was invited on trade missions and her business received public money.
At first, Arcuri refused to confirm or deny whether the two had an intimate relationship, although she did admit that she had saved Johnson’s number on her phone as “Alex the Great” (his real first name is Alexander). Arcuri joked she had asked Johnson to have a go on a pole-dancing pole in her home office, which she said Johnson had visited “a handful” of times, but wouldn’t reveal whether he took her up on the offer. However, she later revealed that they had a four-year affair and went into detail about their sex life, including saying that he requested racy images of her and said one such picture was “enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Johnson repeatedly declined to comment on the claims.
Key quote: “How can I be the thrust — the throttle — your mere footstep as you make your career?” Johnson’s words to Arcuri, according to her diary.
Pass the milk
A day before the general election in 2019 and the Tory lead in opinion polls over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was shrinking. What was going to happen? (Spoiler alert: Johnson oversaw the biggest Conservative election win since the days of Margaret Thatcher.) On a pre-dawn visit to a dairy, Johnson was ambushed by a producer from TV show Good Morning Britain and asked if he would agree to an interview with strop-throwing, Meghan Markle-bothering egomaniac Piers Morgan. “Morning prime minister, would you come on Good Morning Britain?” said the producer, to which Johnson’s aide could be heard saying “oh for fuck’s sake.”
Johnson, who was clearly spooked, replied “I’ll be with you in a second” and then walked away, with a member of the show’s crew exclaiming “he’s gone into the fridge.” Conservative aides were at pains to point out Johnson was “categorically not hiding” in a fridge. He later emerged from the fridge in which he categorically was hiding carrying bottles of milk.
Key quote: “Cowardice is never a good look,” Morgan’s reaction on Twitter.
On a more serious note, Johnson became the first world leader to be infected with the coronavirus and he ended up in intensive care.
The prime minister was first admitted to hospital on April 5, 2020 for tests, in what Downing Street insisted was a precautionary move. He had displayed coronavirus symptoms, including a temperature and a cough, for 10 days, and was in self-isolation in Downing Street, chairing meetings via videoconference and receiving government papers and meals at his door. Johnson tweeted from his hospital bed a day later: “I’m in good spirits and keeping in touch with my team, as we work together to fight this virus and keep everyone safe. I’d like to say thank you to all the brilliant NHS staff taking care of me and others in this difficult time. You are the best of Britain.”
A month earlier, Johnson admitted he “was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody,” comments that did not go down well during a pandemic that would end up resulting in an estimated 205,000 deaths in the U.K.
Key quote: “We’re not getting the respect and now pay that we deserve. I’m just sick of it. So I’ve handed in my resignation,” Jenny McGee, a nurse who was by the prime minister’s bedside for two days when he was in intensive care, after she quit the NHS.
Pick up the dog turd
Cleo Watson, Johnson’s former deputy chief of staff, used high-society magazine Tatler to deliver a withering takedown of the Johnson regime during lockdown. She described her role close to government as more akin to being Johnson’s “nanny” as the pandemic raged, with tasks such as checking that the PM had washed his hands often enough (“What do you mean by ‘recently’?”) and putting up with his jokes — “Kung-Flu” and “Aye! Corona!”
But Watson had to draw the line somewhere, and that line was dog poo. She recalled a meeting at Chequers, the PM’s country residence, involving Johnson’s dog, Dilyn: “We made our way upstairs to be greeted by an appalling smell and what I took to be a small fig under the table. ‘Oh dear,’ the PM said, looking at me expectantly, ‘Dilyn’s done a turd.’ I adopted the exasperated-teapot pose. ‘Well, you’d better pick it up then,’ I said. And he did.”
Key quote: “Karma returned with interest,” Watson after Johnson’s demise at the hands of fellow Tories.
Anyone fancy a drive to Barnard Castle?
Loyalty is a problem for most leaders and Johnson was no exception (we’ll get to those lockdown-busting parties soon enough). Remember Matt Hancock, who quit as health secretary when footage emerged of him making out with an aide? But no one is getting close to the drama caused by Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings. He and Johnson were thick as thieves until Cummings travelled across the country with suspected COVID-19 when the government was pushing a “stay at home” message. Cummings went straight on the offensive, and the prime minister stood by his man.
Perhaps the defining image of Cummings was him sitting behind a trestle table in the Downing Street rose garden explaining why he broke the coronavirus lockdown rules — an unprecedented move for a government special adviser.
Cummings told the press his wife became ill and the pair took the view it would be better to be near family members who could help look after their four-year-old son. He said he drove from London to Durham in the northeast of England without stopping on the way and spent two weeks there while he and his wife recovered. Still feeling weak, Cummings drove the family 30 miles to the town of Barnard Castle to check whether a “weird” feeling in his eyes might prevent him from making the much longer journey back to London — because the obvious thing to do if your eyes are feeling “weird” is to go for a drive with your loved ones.
Cummings was soon fired, never to be heard from again. No, wait, to spend the next two years launching brutal revenge attacks including referring to Johnson by using an emoji of a shopping trolley.
Key quote: “I think most people in Barnard Castle are sick of the negative attention,” Trevor Brookes, editor of the Teesdale Mercury.
The “cash for cushions” scandal over who paid for the refurbishment of Johnson’s flat above No. 11 Downing Street was one that would not go away, and even saw the Electoral Commission formally investigating the Conservative Party’s conduct. Johnson (secretly, at first) borrowed £112,000 from a Tory donor for the controversial refurb, including golden wallpaper that cost £840-a-roll. It got worse when the Independent obtained a leaked copy of the estimate for the renovation that included a £3,675 drinks trolley said to be like one owned in Paris by ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev.
Key quote: “The worry is that there could be a paper trail,” a government source told the Times. Quite.
Peppa Pig World
Johnson’s “aw, shucks it was, er, you know, me? Er, Pericles” shtick endears and infuriates in equal measure. In November 2021, during a speech to business chiefs at the Confederation of British Industry, he went with this: “Yesterday I went, as we all must, to Peppa Pig World. I love it. Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place: it has very safe streets, discipline in schools. Who would have believed that a pig that looks like a hairdryer or possibly a Picasso-like hairdryer, a pig that was rejected by the BBC, would now be exported to 180 countries with theme parks both in America and China?”
Safe to say that not many people saw that coming. Oh, and he also compared himself to Moses, saying: “I said to my officials the new 10 commandments were that ‘Thou shalt develop industries like offshore wind, hydrogen, nuclear power and carbon capture.’”
Key quote: “Arum arum aaaaaaaaag,” official Downing Street transcription of Johnson imitating the sound of an accelerating car at the CBI event.
And so to the beginning of the end. On April 12 this year, Johnson became the first sitting British prime minister to be fined for breaking the law as he was given a £50 fixed penalty notice by police for attending his own lockdown-busting birthday party on June 19, 2020. Johnson swiftly accepted the fine and apologized, but the damage was done and the public anger was very real.
There were a lot of parties (or “work events” if you will) during lockdown. Cheese and wine, birthday bashes, a “bring your own booze” event, leaving parties, plus aides caught on camera joking about how to cover up a drunken Christmas party.
The pressure began to mount and scandalous details emerged as part of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s long-awaited report into the boozy events across Downing Street and Whitehall. By this point Johnson was so toxic he was booed during the queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and on June 15 his ethics adviser (now there’s a tough job) quit after suggesting the PM might have breached the ministerial code.
Key quote: “I think the best thing I can do now is, having settled the fine, focus on the job in hand,” Johnson after being fined.
Now you see it, now you don’t
By June this year, the writing was on the wall but Johnson could still wield power. The Times ran a story suggesting that Johnson attempted to give Carrie Johnson (then Symonds) a £100,000-a-year job as his chief of staff at the Foreign Office in 2018 (when he was foreign secretary), but the report was pulled from later editions of the paper, sparking questions over whether No. 10 applied political pressure on its editors. At the time, Johnson was still married to his second wife, Marina Wheeler.
Downing Street later confirmed that members of Johnson’s team intervened but denied that the prime minister himself contacted the paper to complain.
Cronyism allegations resurfaced last week when Johnson picked the author of a book on his “wit and wisdom”(now there’s a tough job) to help oversee the appointment of new peers to the House of Lords.
Key quote: “We were approached before publication and spoke to them then. I think we spoke to them after publication as well,” PM’s spokesperson.
Congratulations if you had “Chris Pincher” on the scorecard in the game of “What will be the final straw that will lead to Johnson’s downfall?”
A scandal involving sexual misconduct allegations finally ended Johnson’s premiership, but it wasn’t his. Instead it was Pincher, who stepped down from government after being accused of drunkenly groping two men. Pincher had resigned from the whips’ office once over allegations of inappropriate behavior when Johnson opted to make him a minister in 2019. But did the PM know about new allegations when he promoted him? Downing Street said he did not, then Johnson admitted that he did.
Then everyone quit, starting with top ministers Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak (whoever that is!) and ending with the most obscure Tories you’ve never heard of. And then (after dragging it out longer than most would have deemed acceptable), Johnson himself quit. And here we are.
Key quote: “Pincher by name, pincher by nature,” nickname for disgraced ex-minister that Johnson refused to deny that he used.