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Why Boris Johnson ultimately resigned — and Trump never did

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/7/2022 Dan Balz
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces his resignation outside 10 Downing Street on Thursday in London. © Carl Court/Getty Images British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces his resignation outside 10 Downing Street on Thursday in London.

The resignation of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is testament to the power of elected politicians to hold their leaders accountable. It is a lesson that has been lost on Republican Party officials as they have weighed repeatedly how to deal with former president Donald Trump.

Johnson’s resignation Thursday came after a collapse in support among members of his government and Conservative Party backbenchers. Nothing like that has happened to Trump, not during his first impeachment, nor his second impeachment, not even after the role he played in the attack on the Capitol by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021. In each case, all but a handful of Republican elected officials rallied behind Trump — and still do.

Johnson’s resignation came after a lengthy period of decline in his standing. He has been on the defensive for months over one scandal after another. He tried to talk his way out of his troubles and for a time succeeded. He was defiant in the face of the evidence, then offered apologies when he could not evade the truth.

The crumbling of support this week began when two prominent cabinet members, Rishi Sunak, the government’s treasury minister, and Sajid Javid, the health secretary, announced their resignations. By the time Johnson resigned, more than 50 ministers and junior ministers had announced their resignations from their government positions.

On the day before Johnson announced his resignation as leader of his party (he said he would remain as prime minister until a new party leader is chosen), the public chorus of calls for him to step down continued to grow louder. Adding to those public voices, members of his cabinet — even some seeming loyalists — met him at Number 10 Downing Street to privately tell him his time was up.

Those warnings were reminiscent of what happened to President Richard M. Nixon in August 1974, when senior Republicans from Congress, led by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, went to the White House and told Nixon that his support in the Senate had collapsed, a sign that he would likely have been convicted in an impeachment trial. Rather than going down in history as the first president to be impeached and convicted, Nixon chose the less unsavory course and resigned the office.

Trump has never experienced what Johnson has just gone through. At no time have Republican leaders — senators, House members, governors, national or state party officials — collectively tried to confront him. After Jan. 6, 2021, there was talk among Trump’s Cabinet about invoking the 25th Amendment and declaring him unfit for the office, but it came to nothing. Lawmakers condemned him for the attack on the Capitol and then over time began to compliantly fall back in line.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed then-President Donald Trump to the NATO summit in London in 2019. © Peter Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed then-President Donald Trump to the NATO summit in London in 2019.

Johnson was elected as the Tory leader in 2019 after the resignation of former prime minister Theresa May in part because he was seen by others in the party as someone with the appeal to win a general election, and someone who could hold together a party divided over resolving the 2016 national referendum to leave the European Union, the Brexit decision. In a general election late that year, he proved them right, delivering an 80-seat parliamentary majority against a weakened Labour Party with a compromised leader.

Recently, however, the party’s fortunes were beginning to flag and Johnson was becoming a political liability. Conservatives did just enough in local elections in May to sustain him in power, suffering losses but not as big as some feared. Late last month, Conservatives lost two special elections. Earlier in the month, he survived a no-confidence vote within his own party, but even then, the prospects of the Tories winning a general election began to dim.

Johnson seemed to have an unlimited number of political lives, but his fellow Conservatives found defending him too difficult. With the latest scandal, the revelation that he had been warned about the sexual misconduct of Chris Pincher, a Tory politician appointed as chief deputy whip, did nothing about it and claimed that he had not been warned, the stench of his leadership became too much.

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Republicans have not reached that point with Trump. They have weighed the consequences of challenging someone who remains the dominant force in their party and decided either to vigorously defend him or simply to remain silent. They say they are on the cusp of taking back the majority in the House and possibly the Senate. They are willing to ride it out against the evidence that has piled up during the hearings by the House select committee investigation the Jan. 6 attack.

There are similarities in the characters of Johnson and Trump, which may be why they were instinctively drawn to one another. Even as Johnson was maneuvering against May, Trump was praising him and hectoring her, including one celebrated interview in which he criticized May and spoke highly of Johnson as he was arriving for a visit to the United Kingdom with May as his host.

Neither Johnson nor Trump truly took seriously the responsibilities of their office. Both preferred bluster to serious study. They are showmen not statesmen, given to rhetorical excess and flashy displays, reveling in the roar of the crowd. Both have a propensity to spread false claims, even when it’s obvious.

Johnson may have been willing to offer apologies when caught and cornered, but that was more an instinct for survival rather than sincerity. His resignation speech was anything but contrite. Trump seems even more incapable of acknowledging mistakes.

Supporters of President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. © Carlos Barria/Reuters Supporters of President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021.

But it is the differences in the political systems of the two countries that help to explain why what happened to Johnson this week has never happened to Trump.

Britain’s elected officials have much more power to determine who leads their parties and therefore who will become prime minister through a general election. The successor to Johnson ultimately will be determined by a vote of the full Conservative Party membership, the rank-and-file loyalists throughout the United Kingdom. But to get to the final vote, those seeking to lead the party must first survive votes among the parliamentary membership, who winnow the field to the final two candidates.

Trump has never been beholden to the elected officials of the Republican Party, most of whom initially opposed his candidacy for president. Beyond their ability to endorse someone, they have no significant role in selecting the party’s presidential nominee. Trump hijacked the GOP on his way to becoming the 2016 nominee, bent it in his direction and defied the party establishment to challenge him. He continues to do so.

No one expects Republicans who hold office to turn on Trump at this point. They have too much invested in avoiding an internal war with Trump’s most loyal supporters ahead of the 2022 election, where the odds are in their favor. How well Trump-endorsed candidates do in November could change the calculus of some GOP leaders as they look to 2024 and the question of who should be the party’s presidential nominee.

Still, the role that elected officials played in forcing Johnson to give up his post is a reminder of the degree to which Republican leaders in this country — elected lawmakers, former White House officials and members of the Trump Cabinet — have chosen a different path.

It’s true that political calculations entered significantly into what happened in Britain this week and political calculations will affect how Republicans respond to Trump in the future. But when confronted with what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, only a few Republicans stood up, spoke out loudly and sustained that criticism, whatever the political consequences.

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