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Johnson's overdue resignation

July 7, 2022

Britain needs a swift change of government to prevent it from turning into a lame duck in international affairs. Boris Johnson should step down immediately as prime minister, Bernd Riegert says.

Johnson competes in a tug of war during the launch of London Poppy Day 2015
Johnson hung on for all he was worth, yet in the end he tripped over his own liesImage: Getty Images/B. Pruchnie

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been defeated — by himself. His resignation is not the result of a lost election, or a powerful opposition. Instead, the Conservative populist has tripped over his own personality. After three years in office and a series of scandals that exposed him as a liar and a leader unable to admit mistakes, Johnson is on his way out.

His own cabinet lost faith in him, a leader they attached high hopes to at the beginning of his tenure. Johnson is indeed equipped with political talent exhibiting the ability to seize power and win over others. Yet, now he is paying the price for spinning a web of lies, leaving promises unfulfilled and being demonstrably aloof and complacent.

Johnson feels irreplaceable

The fact that Johnson would even consider staying in Downing Street as a lame duck until the Conservatives have selected a new party leader — and hence successor — in a few months' time comes as no surprise.

Johnson has long thought of himself as irreplaceable, holding onto power with everything he's got. All the while refusing to acknowledge exactly why he need take responsibility and resign.

Tellingly, in his resignation speech, Johnson blamed Parliament's powerful "herd instinct" for his downfall. This misinterpretation of events makes him look like his populist role model Donald Trump. Neither are willing to concede defeat. And like Trump, Johnson doesn't seem to care how much damage his chaotic exit inflicts on the country's political system. 

DW's Bernd Riegert
DW's Bernd Riegert


Boris Johnson did keep his 2019 promise to divorce Britain from the European Union and deliver Brexit. In that regard, Johnson accomplished what his conservative predecessor, the responsible yet unlucky Theresa May, failed to achieve. Johnson signed Britain's EU divorce agreement, knowing he would be unable and unwilling to fulfill the deal. It created, among other things, a virtual border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the EU's single market. Even so, in 2019, Johnson achieved a major electoral victory for the Conservatives.

EU glad to see Johnson gone

From then on, things took a turn for the worse. In spring, Johnson mulled unilaterally breaking with the divorce agreement. Yet that won't be possible now, as Britain's caretaker government lacks the power to do so. Johnson's downfall has sparked a sense of relief, even glee, in the EU. Still, nobody can predict whether his successor will respect the Brexit deal. It is impossible to say whether Britain's relationship with the EU will improve, or further sour.

Boris Johnson presents the 2019 election manifesto
Johnson presents his 2019 election manifesto promising to 'Unleash Britain's Potential'Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Augstein

Johnson's approach to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic was similarly erratic. Initially, he did not take the outbreak seriously. Despite this, Johnson quickly established a successful vaccination drive, which proved more effective than elsewhere in Europe. Johnson himself, however, ignored the government's very own lockdown rules, when he partied at his official residence. Revelations of this breach severely harmed his standing.

Lame duck

Johnson's successor will have to deal with a set of pressing issues, including high inflation, a decline in post-Brexit foreign trade, the fallout of Russia's war on Ukraine, a global hunger crisis and the challenge of phasing out fossil fuels.

When it comes to foreign policy, Johnson's exit will turn Britain into a lame duck for months. We can expect a phase of political uncertainty until a new government takes charge. In light of the multiple crises we face today and the international cooperation required to tackle them, this is not a very comforting prospect. In his resignation speech, Johnson admitted the present may appear "dark," yet he claimed to be optimistic when looking to a "golden" future.

He has never made a secret of the fact he admires Britain's war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Occasionally, he would even imitate Churchill's gait and gestures.

But unlike his idol, Johnson lacks firm principles, deep convictions, and a conscience.

This article was originally written in German

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union