Politics

Boris Johnson Travels With Fortuna


If one week could somehow sum up Boris Johnson’s chaotic premiership, this was it. Last Saturday, Johnson was feted after becoming the first G7 leader to travel to Kyiv since the Russian invasion. He was hailed by Volodymyr Zelensky, cheered by Ukrainians in the streets, and even grudgingly praised by his enemies at home and his critics abroad. Yet within 72 hours, he was once again facing calls to resign, after becoming the first British prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law while still in office. He is in every sense the minister of chaos.

In normal circumstances, being fined for breaking lockdown rules to attend his own birthday celebration might well have forced him from office, particularly if it had happened a few months ago, when a tidal wave of revelations about illegal office “parties” in 10 Downing Street during the pandemic appeared to be close to submerging his premiership. The problem was not necessarily one specific party or another but the general deceit, hypocrisy, and disrespect that his rule-breaking seemed to symbolize. Yet by the time the news of the fine dropped on Tuesday, the country seemed to have moved on. The announcement caused an early surge of acrimony, but barely seemed to lap at Johnson’s feet by the end of the day, even if plenty of polling evidence suggests that his popularity has been permanently damaged. The prime minister simply apologized, paid the fine, and vowed to continue in his post. The Conservative Party did not move against him.

Johnson’s luck may still run out: Britain’s Metropolitan Police is investigating a series of other potentially illegal parties that took place at Downing Street on his watch and could issue more fines, triggering another potentially fatal crisis. Yet, for now at least, he survives.

In one sense, Johnson is simply lucky. The timing of the fine—a paltry £50 ($65)—could hardly have been better for the prime minister. Not only did it come during the Easter break, when Parliament was not sitting and much of the country was on holiday, but it came at the very moment when he was basking in the glory of his visit to Kyiv and the diplomatic success of the hawkish position he has taken toward Russia since Vladimir Putin’s invasion. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that the war in Ukraine may have saved Johnson.

The odd political reality for him, then, is that a crisis caused by someone else in a faraway country may have saved him from a crisis caused by himself at home.

Opportunistically or otherwise, Johnson has been among the most decisive world leaders in supporting Ukraine (though not, it has to be said, in providing refuge for Ukrainians themselves). Britain was one of the first countries to begin shipping offensive weapons to Ukraine and, along with the United States, led the intelligence war, leaking information on Putin’s plans. Johnson has also built a particularly close relationship with Zelensky, regularly speaking with him on the phone.

In many ways, this is an absurd situation. The war in Ukraine has no bearing on whether Johnson should resign on the question of principle that rule makers cannot be rule breakers. Britain is not at war. And even if it were, Britain has a track record of removing leaders when rather more is at stake for its survival. His removal would not fundamentally change British policy either: Johnson may have led Britain’s response, but the government’s Ukraine policy has bipartisan support. And yet, for many Conservative members of Parliament and supporters in the press, the war in Ukraine, and Johnson’s handling of it, has become the shield behind which they can hide to allow him to carry on in office.

Is Johnson just a lucky general, then? We’ve been here before, after all. The scandals that have followed Johnson throughout his career are almost too numerous to note—and even the process of noting them somehow diminishes them. But he keeps climbing, seemingly protected by fate. As one commentator joked the other day, the phrase “This has got to be the end for Boris Johnson” has been so often repeated over the years that it may as well be a British proverb. And yet it never is the end. Why?

Although Johnson’s handling of the Ukraine crisis clearly should not determine the political punishment for his illegality during the pandemic, in one important sense the two events are linked. Part of the reason Johnson gets into trouble is the same reason he is often politically and diplomatically aggressive, ultimately able to emerge with his career intact. He sees himself as somehow different, capable of imposing his will on events and controlling his destiny amid chaos, not by hedging against his character but by living up to it, embracing its instincts, because this character, he believes, is the source of his strength.

I have covered Johnson for my entire career, from his time as London’s mayor through to his stint as foreign secretary and then prime minister. Over several months of following him around the country and speaking with him for a profile in The Atlantic, I began to suspect that he felt this way. After being burned, Johnson is not twice shy but carries on, grabbing at new opportunities until he finds one that allows him to advance.

Such belief partially explains the boldness of his approach to the crisis in Ukraine and his desperation to visit Kyiv, which, ultimately, resulted in the political capital he is using to fend off the Partygate scandal, itself a result of his belief in his imperviousness. Johnson is unquestionably lucky, but partly because he believes he is so.

While preparing to interview Johnson last year, I spoke first with an array of his friends, colleagues, and confidants. I also consulted with historians and classicists—the prime minister is an avowed student of Roman and Greek society, and often peppers his remarks with Latin (typically simply to obfuscate or impress). One, the historian Tom Holland, explained that in the classical world, many grand figures believed that they had a personal relationship with the gods, that they were almost looked after, smiled upon, fated to prosper. Did Johnson, Holland mused, believe he traveled with Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck? “He must feel that he has got some kind of genius in the classical sense—that fortune is looking after him,” he told me. “The number of times the cup has been dashed from his lips, only for it to be returned to him, is incredible.”

It is indeed incredible. Johnson was sacked for lying as a junior reporter, only to become one of the best-paid journalists in Britain. He was sacked for lying as a junior Conservative Party spokesperson, only to become the Conservative Party’s leader and prime minister. He has now been fined by the police, only to dress himself up as a war leader in the biggest European conflict since the Second World War.

You do not need to believe in Fortuna—or believe that Johnson is a genius, classical or otherwise—to believe that part of the reason Johnson keeps escaping his self-inflicted problems is because he is convinced that he is playing by different rules.

At root, Johnson believes that life is fleeting and capricious, both “cosmically insignificant,” as he once mused about his own career, and an opportunity for those with the energy and gumption to seize. In Johnson’s view, life is not some scripted drama or a morality test—and certainly not an epochal procession guided by grand historical forces. It is a battle of wills and personalities. As he once put it: “Intelligence is really all about energy.” This is his outlook on life: The clever people can pontificate all they like; life is governed not by their theories but by people willing to do things.

This outlook is why Johnson loves Zelensky so much, and perhaps why Zelensky, in return, seems to like Johnson. In the Ukrainian president, Johnson sees a man of action, a former actor and comedian and a “populist” who rose to the top through his own force of personality and, when challenged, revealed that character matters most. “The Ukrainians have the courage of a lion,” Johnson wrote after visiting Kyiv, adapting Winston Churchill’s line about the British public. “President Zelensky has given the roar of that lion.”

The philosopher John Gray agreed with Holland’s assessment that Johnson’s outlook is shaped by his classical understanding of the world, which differs from that of contemporary Western leaders who, shaped by Christian assumptions, see “progress” and arcs of history all around them and seek to be on the right side of history as they converge. When I spoke with Johnson, he mocked Tony Blair for exactly this, referring to a famous Blair remark to say that the former prime minister “felt the hand of history on his shoulder, didn’t he?” In Johnson’s view, life is more Machiavellian, Gray told me. “Machiavelli says will is 50 percent of what determines success; the other 50 percent is Fortuna,” Gray said. (I once put it to Johnson that he had a pre-Christian pagan morality, but he disagreed, saying that Christianity is “a superb ethical system,” adding: “I would count myself as a kind of very, very bad Christian.”)

Such a belief means that Johnson can be both bold and reckless. When I asked the prime minister whether he traveled with Fortuna, he evaded, as usual, yet I am sure that deep down he thinks he really is smiled upon. More than that, he likely believes in Fortuna not as a blind goddess so much as one who favors the brave. Here lies a subtle difference. Johnson sees life and politics as chaos in which events happen, but those individuals with the energy to react quickest are able to profit. Great people are not drowned by circumstance; they are skillful enough to surf the vicissitudes of life. And he believes he is one of those people.

Johnson will face extraordinary challenges in the next year or so. The scandal over his behavior during the pandemic is not going away, a cost-of-living crisis at home threatens to overwhelm his government’s popularity, and his government has little money left to do much about it. Structurally, it remains likely—in part because this happens to almost all prime ministers—that he will stumble into a crisis that will eventually sap too much of his strength for him to carry on. Perhaps he already has. But given time, he is also more likely than others to uncover another opportunity to save himself. As on previous occasions, he may yet find a way to turn his fortunes around—in large part because he believes he will.




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