Almost ten years ago, Boris Johnson’s sister told an interviewer that the prime minister, aged about five, used to say his ambition was to become ‘world-king’. It was a self-serving piece of family folklore, one she still loves to repeat, and it obscures more than it reveals. Power certainly appeals to Johnson, but he’s very aware of its fragility. Reflecting on the downfall of another proven liar, the Tory MP Jonathan Aitken, he once wrote: ‘Politics is a constant repetition, in cycles of varying length, of one of the oldest myths in human culture, of how we make kings for our societies, and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth. . . Some are innocent . . . some are less innocent. . . It doesn’t really matter. They must die.’
As that suggests, the prime minister’s understanding of responsibility is self-indulgent, melodramatic and nihilistic: he sees accountability as insignificant and assumes eventual failure. Until then though, he’s in thrall to the idea that he can do whatever he wants.
Nothing illustrates the fascination with impunity better than his perspective on Donald Trump, which changed dramatically over the course of 2016. Watching the property developer sweep rivals aside and reshape political realities, Johnson’s scepticism turned to admiration. Trump’s claim that he could have shot a pedestrian on Fifth Avenue without losing support out-Borised Boris himself. The rhetorical force impressed Johnson immensely, while its thuggishness didn’t much matter to him at all.
It looks at last as though Nemesis might be on the way, and, quite optimistically, I’ve just written a piece anticipating the PM’s political demise for the London Review of Books: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/january/will-he-be-pushed-off-the-ice. Even the best case scenario is bad, however. As in the United States, the political landscape bulldozed into existence by Trump-style Johnsonianism could allow for even worse to emerge. . .