Boris Johnson’s decision to quit as prime minister of the United Kingdom followed unprecedented scenes in the British parliament this week, as he clung on to power despite the resignation of more than 50 of his ministers in an attempt to force him out.
The immediate cause of the revolt was a series of last straws over his perceived personal dishonesty—first by breaking his own COVID laws and, most recently, lying about his promotion of a “sex-pest” Member of Parliament.
The deeper issue was a profound disillusionment among those who had voted him into power for delivering Brexit. These constitutents concluded that he had failed to use Britain’s newly recovered independence to free up the country’s capacity for progress and prosperity.
Nor was he resisting the culture war being waged upon core values, particularly the loss of control over illegal immigration and the trashing of Britain’s history and identity.
For two crazy days, it seemed that Johnson intended never to surrender and would go down fighting to the bitter end.
Eventually, however, he was forced to realize the game really was up. Conservative party leadership contenders will now be declaring their candidacy in a further debilitating and destabilizing process which will probably last until October.
Johnson is to serve as a caretaker prime minister until then. Given, however, the calls for him to step down immediately to avoid a dangerous vacuum, he may yet be forced to do so.
Despite the singular characteristics of this British implosion, there are striking similarities between Johnson and two other extraordinary world leaders—Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and America’s former president, Donald Trump. All three were brought to power by voters repudiating the defeatist and self-destructive story being told about their nation by a progressive elite that had lost touch with reality.
In Britain, a majority of the public revolted against an establishment that had sacrificed to the European Union the United Kingdom’s power to make its own laws and govern itself as a sovereign and democratic nation.
In Israel, the public had turned decisively against a left-wing bloc that remained committed to empowering Palestinian Arabs whose real objective was the destruction of the Jewish state.
And in the United States, millions were outraged by a political establishment mindset that denied American exceptionalism, undermined the rule of law and surrendered control of the country’s borders, without which a nation ceases to be a nation.
In these different contexts, Johnson, Netanyahu and Trump were all seen to deliver what the public had so desperately sought but been denied for so long. All three, however, are flawed characters.
Trump was narcissistic, impulsive, erratic, vengeful and paid no attention to detail.
Netanyahu became increasingly paranoid, dictatorial and abusive, and concentrated more and more power on himself.
Johnson was shambolic, dishonest and desperately sought everyone’s approval. As a result, he refused to make hard and necessary choices and was driven instead by one objective alone: to stay in office.
All three refused to accept their own loss of power, a refusal that harmed their countries.
Johnson refused to face up to reality even while the house of cards was tumbling down around him. Now, Britain has been left with a ghost-ship government at a time when there’s the biggest war in Europe since 1945, China is menacing Taiwan, Iran is poised to get the bomb, and there’s a gathering fuel crisis and industrial unrest at home.
To this day, Trump insists that the 2020 election was stolen from him through fraud so widespread that it reversed the true result.
The consequence is that while the Biden administration is careering into economic and cultural disaster at home and courting catastrophic dangers abroad, public trust in American institutions has been further poisoned, and the Republicans are deeply divided.
Netanyahu’s refusal to stand down as leader of the Likud Party—despite the fact that he had become so divisive that many ideological soulmates refused to vote for him—condemned Israel to four stalemated elections and may result in a fifth such inconclusive result this November.
All three men have been sustained by their belief that there is no alternative to them because no one else can match their stellar talents.
Now, this is both true and untrue. In all three countries, there is no shortage of impressive candidates who display many of these leaders’ strengths while not replicating their flaws. However, Johnson, Trump and Netanyahu all possess characteristics that made them uniquely valuable despite their all-too-obvious downside.
In Britain’s Conservative party, able as many leadership candidates are, none possesses Boris Johnson’s secret sauce—his unbounded optimism and ebullience, the fact that he made people feel better about themselves, and that he was not a creature of the establishment but a rebel against it.
He broke the mold of Conservative politicians because of his ability to make working people feel he was one of them—precisely because he was flawed. He acknowledged this through a kind of implicit knowing wink that made people feel that he was just like the rest of imperfect humanity and therefore would always be on their side. Until, that is, they became disgusted by him.
Not dissimilarly, Trump’s unique selling point was that he was the ultimate establishment outsider who busted every convention of political behavior. This enabled him to break the hidebound and prejudiced inertia of the U.S. State Department by moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and helping to broker the 2020 Abraham Accords. And his very tendency to behave erratically and unpredictably meant that the bad guys in the world were always kept off-balance.
Like Johnson, his secret sauce was the line of communication he established with blue-collar workers—principally through his Twitter feed—precisely because he spoke in a way they understood and appreciated while the intellectual elites did not.
The question is whether a Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley or any other able candidate could do what Trump managed to do—bring to the ballot box for the first time so many voters who previously had been alienated from the entire political process.
Netanyahu’s unique quality is different. It is his unrivaled strategic and analytical ability that enables him to see regional and global trends almost before they happen and to be several steps ahead of everyone else in working out how to manage them.
In a country where security issues are always paramount in voters’ minds, that’s what previously carried him to victory. Now, with the country also under a caretaker prime minister in the centrist Yair Lapid, both opponents and supporters of Netanyahu are terrified—the former that he will win power again in November’s general election and the latter that he might fail to do so.
Rather like Trump, who may or may not run again in 2024, the question for Israeli voters is whether Netanyahu’s perceived character flaws are more important than his gifts and the great benefits he has brought to his country.
The free world is currently at a critical inflection point. The threat posed by hostile regimes such as Russia, China and Iran has never been more serious. The public’s needs, interests and values are being systematically trashed and destroyed by moral relativism, identity politics and “victim culture.” The very future of the West is now at risk.
Johnson, as a boy, wanted to be “world king.” Netanyahu thinks he is indispensable to the world. Trump thinks he can cut a deal with it.
In Britain, America and Israel, there’s an overarching and urgent need for leaders who will robustly defend their nation against the onslaught being mounted against it both from within and without.
Nothing else matters. We can live with most flaws. We can’t live without a stalwart, patriotic and courageous heart.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy.” Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.