Why was Boris Johnson cast into the wilderness this week? Because a populist without a tribe is nothing

How do you kill off a strongman? How do you drain the political life from the brand of nationalist-populist leader that’s dominated politics across the democratic world in recent times? This week, we may just have got an answer.

Never say never and all that, but on Wednesday we watched the air go out of the Boris Johnson balloon, the former prime minister deflating before our eyes. While his fellow rightwing populists, the likes of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, continue to wreak or threaten havoc, it’s instructive to work out exactly what did for Johnson. It could even be a formula to follow.

You might think the magic bullet would be hard evidence of appalling behaviour. That certainly exists in the Johnson case. His appearance before the Commons committee on privileges revived memories not just of the details of Partygate – the trestle tables, the raised glasses – but of the very particular rage those revelations provoked.

This week marked the third anniversary of a lockdown that was like nothing the country had ever endured before, requiring a suppression of the most elemental human instincts: to be close to others, to talk, to touch. The Partygate revelations stirred fury not only because they involved the rankest hypocrisy – those setting the rules were breaking them – but also because they suggested that the deprivations Britons had suffered were not, after all, universal or collective and therefore unavoidable, but rather were somehow optional. If you were a mug, you followed the rules; if you were smart, you ignored them.

Still, we’ve known about Johnson’s unforgivable conduct for a while. It can’t explain why this week he shrank before us. Could the difference be that on Wednesday we saw Johnson’s arguments turn to mush? His defence rested on his insistence, tetchily repeated, that it was “essential for work purposes” that he turn up at staff gatherings, say a few words and drink a toast. Since those morale boosting get-togethers were “necessary” for the functioning of the UK government, he believed they were permitted under the rules – and therefore he was telling the truth when he told MPs all guidance had been followed. He would hold that view “till the day I die”.

Consider that for a moment. If Johnson had been describing a day when, say, Downing Street had learned of an incoming missile strike on London, forcing staff to convene immediately in a small, sealed situation room where it was impossible for generals and ministers to keep 2 metres apart, we might agree that, yes, those were exceptional circumstances and such a meeting was truly essential. But patting the back of a departing press officer? Lifting the spirits of a few spads? It’s not exactly the elimination of Osama bin Laden. It meets no one’s definition of “essential”.

The proof is that next to no one else was doing it. Heads of hospitals, who would have loved to thank doctors and nurses who were daily saving the lives of others and risking their own, did not break out the bubbly and pass round the nibbles. They knew they couldn’t. We all knew. There was no exemption for “work events”.

And by what strange logic might the rules have allowed Downing Street staff to gather to wave off a policy aide or speechwriter they’d known for all of a few months, and yet bar families from saying farewell to their dying loved ones? Did Johnson really reckon the rules held that it was fine for him to see off some comms aide with a glass of fizz, but that the Queen had to say goodbye to her husband of 73 years wholly alone? Wednesday’s hearing was proof that, while Johnson may have had Covid, he still hasn’t the faintest idea what the pandemic meant for the people of this country.

And yet, even all that cannot alone explain the shrinking of Boris Johnson. Trump ticks those same boxes – reprehensible conduct, specious defence – but he remains Republican voters’ first choice for president in 2024. Ditto Netanyahu, currently on trial for corruption, but back in power and pressing ahead with his horrendous plan to neuter the Israeli judiciary.

Indeed, far from being weakened by being called to account, both men draw strength from it. Trump may well be indicted by a Manhattan court next week, and he is said actively to hope that he’s arrested on camera, ideally with his hands cuffed behind his back. That way he can play the rightwing populist’s favourite role: victim. Trump will say, as Netanyahu says, that he is the victim of liberal prosecutors and an illegitimate system; that his legal woes are, in fact, a deep-state, elitist coup against him, the tribune of the people.

Johnson and his supporters tried that move this week. The ex-PM called the committee’s investigation “extremely peculiar”. Asked if he accepted its legitimacy, he gave the Trumpian answer that he would regard the committee as legitimate if it cleared him, a response that had his own lawyer shaking his head. Johnson’s allies branded the hearing a “kangaroo court”. Mid-session, Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted: “Boris is doing very well against the marsupials.” Recall that Rees-Mogg likes to pose as a custodian of our unwritten constitution. In fact, he is a vandal in pinstripes, ready to undermine public trust in the very parliamentary democracy he pretends to cherish.

And yet, while that move still yields dividends for Trump or Netanyahu, it no longer pays out for Johnson. On Thursday, a poll of a Question Time audience that had mostly voted Tory in 2019 showed not one person thought he was telling the truth. Why has he fallen while those other men still stand? It’s not that his crimes are more disgusting than theirs. So what’s the difference?

It’s that Johnson has lost his tribe. Trump was defeated in the 2020 election, but even now few Republicans dare defy him. Netanyahu faces protests from within the Israeli military and on the streets – following him even on his Friday visit to London – but most of his party remains behind him. In Britain, it’s different: the Conservatives are abandoning Johnson.

That process only began with his defenestration last summer. Even in October, after the Liz Truss fiasco, at least 100 Tory MPs were ready to bring him back. That number has now dwindled. On Wednesday, a mere 21 followed his lead and voted against Rishi Sunak’s Windsor framework for Northern Ireland. That’s partly because they’ve seen the alternative: quiet, relative competence, which is kryptonite to rightwing populists, who thrive on drama and division rather than the dull business of actually getting things done.

If the Tories have finally given up their “Boris” habit, they deserve little credit. They came to it late and only when their calculus of self-preservation told them it was safe. But they have at least shown who – perhaps alone – can topple these would-be strongmen. The courts can’t do it; even the voters can’t always do it. The power, and responsibility, lies with those who acted as their enablers. The grim truth is that, too often, the only people who can bring down these terrible men are the ones who put them there in the first place.

  • Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist