The highs and lows of Boris Johnson's political career 

In the end, once-popular prime minister ran out of support - as Geraint Vincent looks back at Boris Johnson over the decades


Boris Johnson has resigned as the leader of the Tories and will step down as prime minister after holding onto power by the tips of his fingers for months.

He was forced out in the fallout of the Chris Pincher affair, which saw Mr Johnson's judgement questioned and two of his most senior allies resign at the same time.

But his career - defined by gaffes and scandals that would have undone many other politicians far earlier in their political life - was littered with highs and lows before the public turned against him.

His brand of confidence, gift of the gab and talent for a catchy slogan saw him not only survive politically, but thrive - fulfilling a role he had long thought his (according to his sister Rachel, the young Mr Johnson’s goal was to be “world king”).

Controversies

Controversy followed Mr Johnson around even before he was handed the keys to 10 Downing Street with a huge mandate in December 2019.

As a newspaper columnist, he was frequently criticised for using racially charged or offensive language, including describing the Queen being greeted in Commonwealth countries by “flag-waving piccaninnies” and then-prime minister Tony Blair being met by “tribal warriors” with “watermelon smiles” while on a trip to the Congo.

In a 2018 Daily Telegraph column, he described veiled Muslim women as “looking like letter boxes”. 

The PM’s track record on LGBT+ rights has also been questioned, namely over his use of the slur “tank-topped bum boys” to refer to gay men in a column.

But the seemingly Teflon-like MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip was able to shrug off these controversies, winning voters and finding, as his biographer described it, “an astonishing link with the wider public”. Or, as one less than enamoured former colleague told ITV News, a “master of self-publicity”.


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A rise to the top

Despite his obvious privilege, Mr Johnson - full name Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - won overwhelming support from across the board, winning two terms in left-leaning London as the capital’s mayor and, later, at the 2019 General Election, taking a sledgehammer to large parts of Labour’s former ‘Red Wall’.

He was instrumental in Brexit and galvanised the Vote Leave campaign after he came onboard, revealing he was backing leave in a Telegraph column, and bringing with him previously fence-sitting supporters.

Mr Johnson opted not to make a bid for the leadership after his former friend David Cameron stepped down in June 2016 following the Brexit vote, with commentators suggesting Mr Johnson was biding his time.

Upon her appointment as Conservative leader in 2016, Theresa May made Mr Johnson her foreign secretary. He quit two years later in July 2018 in protest at the direction she was taking on Brexit, claiming the UK was headed “for the status of a colony” if Ms May’s soft Brexit plans were adopted.

As Ms May's stint as prime minister stuttered amid continuous Brexit acrimony, Mr Johnson saw his chance to fulfil his lifetime ambition. He trounced rival Jeremy Hunt in the leadership election in July 2019.

His tenure as prime minister was bumpy from the start. His attempt to prorogue Parliament backfired spectacularly when the Supreme Court ruled it was unlawful, and he missed his “do or die” deadline to take Britain out of the European Union on October 31.

'Getting Brexit Done'

After MPs rejected his timetable to force the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through, Mr Johnson pushed on for a general election – a bid that was eventually granted when opposition parties deemed that a no-deal Brexit was no longer on the table.

His gamble paid off spectacularly when he won an 80-seat majority, capturing long-held Labour seats on the back of Mr Johnson’s promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’. It took another 12 months to ‘get Brexit done’ when an agreement was signed on Christmas Eve 2020. Although the fallout from the UK’s departure from the EU remains far from over, with many loose ends remaining. 

Boris Johnson campaigned to leave the EU, giving a welcome boost to Vote Leave. Credit: PA

Mr Johnson's biographer Andrew Gimson, who poured over every element of this singular politician's life for his book Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson, released in 2006, told ITV News the prime minister did not like to conform to - if not entirely disregard - the rules, a trait noted by his Eton teacher Martin Hammond who warned his family about an apparent sense of self-entitlement.

The Covid-19 pandemic hits the UK

Just four months into his role, Mr Johnson was faced with one of the biggest crises a British prime minister had faced since World World II, the coronavirus pandemic.

He was forced to make difficult decisions on lockdowns and Covid restrictions that went against his personal libertarian beliefs. Mr Johnson was personally affected by the virus when he was admitted to the intensive care unit at St Thomas' hospital in London in April 2020.

He recovered and months later named his newborn son Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson in a nod to the two NHS doctors - Dr Nick Price and Professor Nick Hart - who treated him.

Despite PPE shortages, an eye-watering £37 billion Test and Trace bill, accusations of cronyism and questions over how well protected care homes were, Mr Johnson rode out much of the pandemic with the public on his side. 

With his predecessor, Theresa May. Credit: PA

He was barely dented by the scandal surrounding his former aide Dominic Cummings' notorious trip to Barnard Castle to "test his eye-sight", with Mr Johnson and his Cabinet doubling down in Mr Cummings' defence.

Mr Cummings sensationally quit Downing Street in November 2020 and would become a thorn in the PM's side, sniping from the sidelines at every opportunity.

More than two years after helping him secure a huge majority, Mr Cummings helped bring about the PM's downfall by accusing Mr Johnson of attending a rule-breaking party - an allegation ITV News eventually proved to be true after releasing a leaked email (more below).

But Mr Johnson would become hugely more popular before then, with the vaccine rollout providing a huge boost.

Vaccines provide a popularity boost

In December 2020, 91-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person in the UK outside of a trial to get a Covid jab, further increasing Mr Johnson’s popularity (a vaccine race spat with the EU did not do him any harm either).

The good spirits continued after he got married to Carrie Symonds in a secret wedding ceremony at Westminster Cathedral, becoming the first PM to get married while in office in nearly 200 years.

'Freedom day' on July 19, 2021, was heralded by Mr Johnson as a return to normality, but Covid - and the rules he had made - would eventually prove to be the prime minister’s undoing.


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The withdrawal from Afghanistan

Before that he was faced with the challenge of Afghanistan, which was recaptured by the Taliban in August 2021 as western forces withdrew from the country.

The crisis demonstrated just how far the UK's influence on the world stage had waned in recent years, as Mr Johnson was unable to convince western countries to stay in Afghanistan after the US withdrew.

The PM lauded the evacuation of Brits and allies from Afghanistan, however he was heavily criticised after accepting that not everyone eligible to live in the UK would be able to escape.

He was accused of putting pets before people amid reports he personally intervened to help former Marine Paul 'Pen' Farthing evacuate dogs from an animal refuge centre in Kabul - allegations the PM denied.

Mr Johnson was able to retain popularity after sacking Dominic Raab as foreign secretary over his role in the crisis.

The beginning of the end

Many in Westminster believe the tide started turning in Mr Johnson's premiership after his decision try to help former minister and Brexit ally Owen Paterson avoid punishment for breaking lobbying rules.

Mr Johnson was accused of cronyism over his attempts to rip up the Commons standards rule book in a bid to save Mr Paterson from a suspension.

He U-turned and apologised to his MPs for the debacle, admitting he'd “crashed the car into a ditch” by trying to save Mr Paterson - but it was far from over for the Conservatives, as allegations of Tory sleaze were levelled at numerous MPs over their second jobs.

Mr Johnson was then accused of betraying people in the North by abandoning plans for high speed railway lines connecting northern regions with each other and London.

A tough few weeks for Mr Johnson were topped off with his infamous Peppa Pig speech, which saw him mocked around the world. The prime minister also made car noises and spoke of technology "unicorns" while speaking to members of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) about renewable energy.

On a number of occasions he appeared to lose track of his notes as he remarked "blast it" and asked those attending the annual conference in South Shields if they would "forgive me, forgive me, forgive me".

Omicron hits, partygate follows

The prime minister attempted to brush aside attacks on him with "crime week" as he announced hundreds of millions to tackle law breaking - something he would soon be accused of himself.

Rumblings of a new coronavirus variant began at the end of November and sent an alarm through the scientific community and down the corridors of No 10.

The government, keen to be seen to be acting swiftly, banned flights from South Africa where the newly named Omicron was first detected. Plan B measures were brought in, ushering masks in public places once again, and a return to working from home.

Angela Merkel with Boris Johnson during the G7 summit in Cornwall. Credit: Leon Neal/PA

As Omicron raised the spectre of another locked-down Christmas with families once again separated, the Daily Mirror broke a story that Downing Street had held a party on December 18, 2020, a time when the country was in lockdown, and mixing with friends and family was banned.

The prime minister was not at this party, and in fact denied it had ever happened and, if it had happened, no rules were broken. 

Days later, a leaked video, obtained by ITV News, showed senior Downing Street staff joking about the December 18 party - days after it was alleged to have taken place with Mr Johnson’s then spokesperson Allegra Stratton remarking there was “definitely no social distancing.”  


Watch the full exchange in the mock televised press briefing

Mr Johnson apologised “for the impression that it gives” but insisted “there was no party and no Covid rules were broken”. Ms Stratton resignedBut this was just the tip of the party iceberg, even staggering Covid case rates fuelled by Omicron could not distract from the endless allegations - many of which took place in 10 Downing Street.

An email seen by ITV News, sent by his principal private secretary, inviting Downing Street staff to a drinks party in the Number 10 garden during the height of nationwide lockdown to "make the most of the lovely weather", put him right at the centre of 'partygate'.

This email was sent by the prime minister's personal private secretary, inviting more 100 staff members for drinks in the Number 10 garden. Credit: ITV News

Mr Johnson's defence that he thought it was a work event as no one had told him otherwise, was widely ridiculed. Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, called for him to resign and soon members of his own party were urging him to quit.

Rumblings of discontent among the Tory faithful grew louder as MPs went public with their disapproval of Mr Johnson's actions, and his approval ratings slid to new lows.

Police launch investigation

Mr Johnson hoped an inquiry by civil servant Sue Gray would absolve him of blame for the numerous parties, but the allegations kept piling up and the police were eventually forced to launch their own criminal investigation.

With Labour way ahead in the polls for the first time in a long while, Tory MPs rounded on the prime minister and letters of no confidence in his leadership piled up.

War abroad stabilises PM's leadership back home

On February 24, after weeks of denying that it would, Russia sent its troops into Ukraine. It swiftly became a brutal, harrowing conflict, and its effects rippled across the globe.

In the UK, Boris Johnson slapped unprecedented sanctions on Russia, embarked on a risky visit to Kyiv to display solidarity with Ukraine and even gave pleas for peace in Russian and Ukrainian.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Boris Johnson in Kyiv in April. Credit: AP

An Ipsos poll from early March showed the PM's public favourability recovered partially following the invasion, with an increased number of people stating he was "good in a crisis" and a "capable leader".

Mr Johnson's critics, however, would argue that Britain accepted a relatively meagre number of Ukrainian refugees, and the PM comparing Ukraine's plight to Brexit was tactless.

The Johnsons fined over partygate - and Sue Gray delivers her findings

Around three months after allegations of the Downing Street parties emerged, in April Number 10 confirmed that the PM, his wife and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were set to receive fines from the Metropolitan Police.

All three apologised but, again, the PM recycled his line about not believing rules had been broken, saying "in all frankness at that time it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules".

The fine put the PM in the history books as the first sitting prime minister in history found to have broken the law.

Pictures of Boris Johnson toasting staff at a lockdown leaving do featured in the Sue Gray report. Credit: Sue Gray Report/Cabinet Office

Still he hung on, and the country awaited Sue Gray's report into Covid-rule-breaking in Downing Street. A month later it arrived, in all its damning detail.

On May 25, the 60 page document was released and was scathing of senior leadership at Number 10, with top civil servant Ms Gray saying they must "bear responsibility" for the party culture in Downing Street, which came about due to a "failure of leadership".

Mr Johnson said he took "full responsibility" for the rule-breaking which took place on his watch - but defended himself by saying he was not present for a number of the illegal gatherings, and resisted calls to resign.

He also insisted he'd always been honest to the Commons with his denials of law-breaking, saying he believed at the time that the rules had always been followed in government. A number of MPs were dubious about that claim, and it's an issue that reappeared in letters of no-confidence filed in June.

A vote of no confidence is triggered

Having seemed to be brewing for months amid an onslaught of negative coverage, Monday, June 6, was the day a vote of no confidence was triggered.

It came after Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, announced that at least 15% of Conservative MPs had written to him demanding a vote.

The vote is done in secret, but many of the MPs who publicly came out to call for Mr Johnson's resignation cited the partygate scandal and "failure of leadership".

It's impossible to pinpoint the 'why now' of the situation - but Mr Johnson and wife Carrie being audibly booed as they arrived for the Queen's Jubilee Thanksgiving service on June 3 got plenty of headlines.

The Chris Pincher affair - and devastating resignations

The Conservative whip was suspended from Chris Pincher at the start of July after an investigation was launched into allegations he drunkenly groped two men at a private members’ club.

The fallout from this would lead to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid resigning at the same time, in a devastating blow to Mr Johnson's premiership.

After the allegations emerged, Mr Johnson eventually bowed to pressure after a complaint about the MP was made to Parliament’s watchdog that examines allegations of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct.

Mr Pincher dramatically quit as Tory deputy chief whip after a drunken incident in which he allegedly groped two guests at the exclusive London club.

The prime minister resisted calls to go further and remove the whip, meaning the MP for Tamworth in Staffordshire would sit as an independent in the Commons.

Following repeated denials from Downing Street - and a succession of ministers - that the prime minister was aware of any formal complaint made against Mr Pincher, Mr Johnson claimed he "forgot" he had been told.

The prime minister’s spokesperson confirmed that Mr Johnson was briefed on the complaint by officials at the Foreign Office in 2019, a “number of months” after it took place.

After widespread criticism of Mr Johnson's judgement and reaction to the latest allegations, Rishi Sunak resigned as chancellor and Sajid Javid quit as health secretary - both in protest against Mr Johnson's leadership.

The former Cabinet ministers told the PM they had lost confidence in him. They were followed by more than 50 government resignations over the next day and a half.

In the end, Mr Johnson ran out of support even from within his own party and became an increasingly isolated figure, unable to fill vacant ministerial roles and roundly criticised for his stubborn refusal to stay put.

As the prime minister said himself in Downing Street, the address where he dreamed of staying for many more years, it is “clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader.”