One of Queen Elizabeth II’s final acts was to accept the resignation of disgraced Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the most mendacious and incompetent of the 15 prime ministers who led the United Kingdom during her 70-year reign. No one could highlight, at least by contrast, the Queen’s strengths better than Britain’s unprincipled populist.
Johnson was the only prime minister ever to draw the Queen directly – even deliberately – into scandal. In 2019, he asked her to prorogue (suspend) Parliament so that he could avoid resistance – or, indeed, any form of political scrutiny – as he pushed through Britain’s exit from the European Union. The UK’s Supreme Court quickly countermanded that action, ruling unanimously that Johnson’s request was illegal. And this was hardly the only scandal that plagued Johnson’s premiership; on the contrary, it was a steady stream of misconduct that forced him out.
The day after she accepted Johnson’s resignation, Elizabeth welcomed his successor, Liz Truss, the third woman to hold the post. Judging by her own populist record, Truss may turn out to be little better than Johnson. In any case, upholding the British constitution by overseeing this transfer of power was a fitting final act for a figure who represented a source of legitimacy rooted in a thousand years of British history.
Of course, the past offers no guarantees about the future. As the political commentator Walter Lippmann argued in his book A Preface to Morals, “the acids of modernity” – including secularization, the breakdown of social deference, and increased economic mobility – were contributing to the “dissolution of the ancestral order” by eroding “the disposition to believe” in most forms of traditional authority.
Yet Elizabeth managed to maintain her hold on the British public for seven decades. Johnson, by contrast, represented nothing more than a phantom version of public opinion conjured by social media and the tabloid press – a fleeting form of consent that is here one day and canceled the next. He lasted just three years as prime minister.
Whereas Elizabeth spent her reign living up to what Walter Bagehot called the “dignified” function of monarchy, Johnson spent his premiership stripping as much dignity from his office as possible. For example, he implemented a dress code more suited for a pub crawl than the halls of government, enabling his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, to don baggy jeans and hoodies. (One of Truss’s first actions as prime minister – an attempt, one hopes, to distance herself from her predecessor – was to restore sartorial decorum to Downing Street.)
Worse, Johnson hosted drunken parties while the rest of Britain was stuck in Covid-19 lockdown, unable even to visit dying family members. What galled Britons the most was Johnson’s lack of basic human decency, not to mention his disrespect for the importance of his position.
And then there was Johnson’s chaotic life beyond 10 Downing Street, which has included everything from lying in an article for the Times (and getting fired for it) and lying to then-Tory leader Michael Howard (and getting fired for that), to a string of extramarital affairs. The British public does not even know for certain how many children the former prime minister has. It is thus fitting that the scandal that broke his premiership’s back was his failure to take seriously the sexually predatory behavior of a member of his government.
To be sure, Elizabeth’s family has not avoided the stench of scandal. Earlier this year, the Queen’s second – and reportedly favorite – son, Prince Andrew, paid an undisclosed amount, probably running in the millions of dollars, as part of an out-of-court settlement of a sexual-abuse case brought against him in the United States. The case was tied to his friendship with the infamous sex-trafficking billionaire Jeffrey Epstein.
The British tabloids never seem to grow tired of royal drama. The saga of the toxic marriage between Elizabeth’s oldest son, now King Charles III, and Diana, Princess of Wales still claims headlines 25 years after Diana’s death. And barely a week goes by without some new chapter in the saga of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who stepped down as working royals in 2020 and decamped to Los Angeles.
But Elizabeth never indulged scandal. On the contrary, the one moment in her reign when Elizabeth seemed almost to lose the affection of her subjects came after Diana’s death, when she initially refused to participate in the public spectacle of mourning, before finally relenting and reading a statement of condolence. But this commitment to the stiff-upper-lip ethos was part of Elizabeth’s understanding of monarchy: she was living up to Bagehot’s dictum that you cannot “let in daylight upon the magic.”
At the same time, Elizabeth did not sustain the monarchy’s legitimacy through magic. Designations like “her Majesty” and a life spent in palaces did not make her the queen she was. Instead, she adhered to old-fashioned virtues: hard work, devotion to duty, fortitude, discretion, and consistency. Those are qualities that someone like Johnson and those surrounding him barely understand, let alone embody.
One can only imagine what the inscrutable Elizabeth thought of Johnson’s lies, cronyism, and bombastic behavior. And one can only hope that Truss’s more conventional behavior in Downing Street will bring with it better policies. More importantly, one must trust that Charles III won’t be the failed monarchs that Charles I and Charles II were, but has learned from his mother’s example.