Boris Johnson’s downfall gives Britain chance for fresh start

Prime minister's lies finally catch up with him

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Editorials

July 7, 2022 - 2:40 PM

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday quit as Conservative party leader, after three tumultuous years in charge marked by Brexit, Covid and mounting scandals. (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Is it still possible for a Western democratic leader to be held accountable for lying too much? That is the implication of Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister of Britain on Thursday, and it’s a hopeful one. Mr. Johnson, elected in a 2019 landslide, once seemed headed for a long career in Britain’s highest office. Yet he could not quite control a habit for shading the truth he first notoriously exhibited in the early 1990s as a Brussels-based journalist writing inaccurate European Union-bashing articles. Mr. Johnson survived a scandal over boozy parties at his official 10 Downing Street residence during Britain’s covid-19 lockdowns. This week, however, he could not withstand a wave of resignations by senior members of his Conservative party government. They were angered at revelations he had falsely denied knowing about sexual misconduct allegations against someone he appointed to a top position.

Of course, Mr. Johnson’s lies are, in part, a pretext for what became an irresistible intraparty move to topple him. If all had been well otherwise, both for Britain and for the prime minister, the Conservatives might have tolerated them. However, all is not well. Britain’s inflation rate, 9.1 percent, is the highest in the Group of Seven. Mr. Johnson’s handling of the departure from the European Union that he supported — Brexit — has been shaky, leading to a clash with the E.U. over cross-border trade between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Parliamentary committees have criticized his government for a poor initial response to the pandemic. A June YouGov poll found that 71 percent of the public thinks Mr. Johnson is doing his job “badly.” The next general election is scheduled for 2025 but if it were held today the Conservatives would lose to the Labour opposition by 7 points, according to polls.

Perfectly sincere or not, the mere fact that party rebels described rampant lying as a firing offense for their erstwhile leader remains a point in British political culture’s favor. So, too, is a parliamentary system that makes it possible to oust an unfit national leader without waiting for a new election or enduring an impeachment crisis. It’s up to the Conservative parliamentary majority to choose a new party leader, who will automatically become prime minister — after what should be the briefest possible transition.

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