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Adrian Wooldridge

Boris Johnson’s Fall Is Populism’s Latest Act of Self-Destruction

But structural forces remain on the side of norm-breaking politicians, who will continue to wreak global havoc.

Exit stage left. 

Exit stage left. 

Photographer: Dylan Martinez - Pool/Getty Images

The defenestration of Prime Minister Boris Johnson was a very British affair. There were prolonged shots of Number 10 Downing Street as the press waited for signs that he might surrender. There was a particularly fraught Prime Minister’s Question time as Johnson tried to defend his record against Labour’s Keir Starmer even as his MPs were deserting him. There were repeated references to the 1922 Committee — the Conservative backbenchers’ trade union that had its origins in a backbenchers’ plot, in 1922, to terminate the party’s alliance with another louche politician, Lloyd George. To add a very British twist to the tale: The 1922 Committee sprang from a meeting in the Carlton Club where Chris Pincher allegedly engaged in the drinking-and-male-groping frenzy that ended Johnson’s career.

Yet for all the local color, this was a British variation on the global story of populism’s dangerous appeal and destructive power. We have seen similar themes play out in almost every corner of the world. A charismatic leader wins power by promising to champion the people against the powerful. He breaks many of the formal rules of politics, starting with sartorial and behavioral codes but also targeting institutional rules, particularly when they involve putting constraints on his power. He frequently achieves remarkable things that convention-bound politicians deemed impossible. But he eventually crashes and burns — the victim not only of personal foibles but also of the logical contradictions inherent in his promises.