On 2nd May 1997, after a seismic defeat at the polls, Conservative Prime Minister John Major aptly said, “when the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage.” His defeat after six-and-a-half years in Number 10 spelt the end of his political career.
While most premierships end in failure, turmoil or disappointment, there are always those who attempt to bypass the laws of British politics. It was Margaret Thatcher who wanted to “go on and on”, then Tony Blair and his dream of a legacy, and now Boris Johnson.
For those who have studied or watched Boris Johnson’s political career and premiership with great interest, it was always highly unlikely that he was just going to quit out of the blue. For a Prime Minister who secured an 80-seat majority just three years ago, Johnson always wanted to be one of history’s most significant Prime Ministers.
His disappointment, therefore, is more than understandable. Only weeks before he announced his resignation, Johnson dreamed of a third term in office. And although he still has some remaining weeks in office before he hands over power to either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss, he is already thinking of a comeback.
It wasn’t at all shocking to read Johnson’s comments to Lord Cruddas that he “does not want to resign” and that he “wants to fight the next general election as leader of the party”. It is very much typical of his character – and the characters of other PMs like Thatcher who begin to lose their grip on political sanity.
Although there is a measly ‘Bring Back Boris’ campaign up and running for deluded party members, Johnson’s wishes for a comeback are dangerous and hugely counterproductive to his ‘legacy’.
In today’s current political climate, with tough media and political parties that grow easily tired of personalities that outstay their welcome, leaders are often given one chance only. There are occasionally exceptions, with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, but it does seem that the position of any party leader is temporary.
If Johnson were to return, he would only want to come back as Prime Minister. With the Conservatives headed for defeat sometime before the end of the 2020s, becoming Leader of the Opposition would be less than desirable. But even if he were to run again as Tory leader and PM together, he would be considered an old has-been – the past.
Since the war, only Winston Churchill (1940-45, 1951-55) and Harold Wilson (1964-70, 1974-76) have served twice in the grand office since. Both leaders stand far above Johnson in terms of virtually every quality that is demanded of a great Prime Minister.
Although these two titans returned as Prime Ministers, their second stints in office were mild compared to the bombastic successes of their first periods.
Most famously, Winston Churchill was a leading light during the Second World War and a key architect of victory. He, in his own words, kept “buggering on” and he united the people against Hitler’s Nazism. After the war, he became a man of myth – and like all legends, he belonged to days of glory past. Voters recognised he was incapable of changing Britain after the war, which resulted in the famous Labour landslide.
But even when Churchill returned to office in 1951, his second stint was a pale imitation of his first. Britain had entered a new age; it was no longer a superpower. Churchill was a largely absent figure in the fifties, and the Conservative ignorance of empire and an unremarkable domestic record renders the great man of World War Two mediocre.
As for Wilson, he defined the politics of the swinging sixties, liberalising Britain hugely and unleashing modern laws to improve life for minorities and working people. Even with its economic faults (and there were many), the first Wilson premiership stands as a post-war success story.
But when Wilson returned in 1974, his two years in Number 10 reek of the same mediocrity as Churchill’s. Wilson’s seventies administration may not be a terrible government and it certainly shines when compared to the Heath and Callaghan periods, but Wilson himself was a tired figure and he failed to excite the political scene for those two years.
Right now, with his personality and few significant and positive achievements, Boris Johnson’s reputation as Prime Minister cannot be improved. A second Johnson premiership down the road will prove just how tired and useless a modern politician can grow with age and when they lose their relevance.
The same applies to other former Prime Ministers who dreamed (or are said to) about a comeback. Harold Macmillan was ridiculed when he hinted at a return in 1976, and the return of Sir Tony Blair to the scene 25 years after his landslide victory would be similar to reviving an old rock star decades after their prime.
Professor Peter Hennessey, a studier of Prime Ministers, summed up the mortality of Prime Ministers and their delusions in 1996:
“The job, in many ways, is like a prison sentence. They do say they love it, and they get this great surge of adrenaline, and they get used to taking decisions. But bit by bit, as performers, as practitioners, as thinkers… they degrade. And very often they are the last person to realise it.”
To his credit, Wilson realised when he resigned in 1976 that his time was up. But Thatcher went to her grave believing she had been robbed of her position, and Johnson will undoubtedly fill his memoir with delusions and blustering attacks on colleagues (watch out Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove).
All Prime Ministers must realise their time in office is limited. Second chances are possible, but increasingly rare. If Johnson wants history to remember him any better, taking up office as an old has-been just won’t cut it.