Johnson’s resignation came after a long period of declining reputation. He’s been on the defensive for months over one scandal after another. He tried to get out of his troubles and was successful for a while. He was defiant in the face of evidence, then apologized when he couldn’t dodge the truth.
The erosion of support this week began when two senior 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 deputy ministers had announced their resignation from their governmental functions.
The day before Johnson announced his resignation as leader of his party (he said he would remain prime minister until a new party leader was chosen), the public chorus of calls for his resignation continued to escalate. In addition to these public voices, members of his cabinet – even some apparently loyalists – met him at Number 10 Downing Street to tell him privately that his time was up.
These warnings were reminiscent of what happened to President Richard M. Nixon in August 1974, when senior congressional Republicans, led by Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, drove 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 go down in history as the first president to be impeached and convicted, Nixon took the less than desirable course and resigned from office.
Trump never went through what Johnson just went through. At no time did Republican leaders — senators, House members, governors, national or state party officials — collectively attempt to confront him. After January 6, 2021, there was talk within Trump’s cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment and declaring him unfit for office, but it came to nothing. Lawmakers condemned him for the attack on the Capitol, then over time they began to fall back in complacency.
Johnson was elected Conservative leader in 2019 after former Prime Minister Theresa May resigned, in part because he was seen by other party members as someone with the calling to win a general election and someone who could keep a party divided. resolve the 2016 national referendum to leave the European Union, Brexit decision. In a general election at the end of that year, he proved them right by securing an 80-seat parliamentary majority against a weakened Labor party with a compromised leader.
Recently, however, the party’s fortunes were beginning to falter and Johnson was becoming a political liability. The Tories did just enough in local elections in May to keep him in power, suffering losses but not as big as some feared. At the end of last month, the 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 a general election victory for the Tories began to fade.
Johnson seemed to have an unlimited number of political lives, but his fellow conservatives found his defense too difficult. With the latest scandal, the revelation that he had been tipped off about the sexual misconduct of Chris Pincher, a Tory politician appointed deputy chief whip, did nothing about it and claimed he had not been warned, the stench of his leadership has grown too strong.
Republicans haven’t reached that point with Trump. They weighed the consequences of challenging someone who remains the dominant force in their party and decided to either defend him vigorously or simply remain silent. They say they are about to regain a majority in the House and possibly in the Senate. They are ready to confront the evidence that has accumulated during hearings by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.
There are similarities in the characters of Johnson and Trump, which perhaps explains why they were instinctively drawn to each other. Even as Johnson maneuvered against May, Trump praised and harassed her, including a famous interview in which he criticized May and praised Johnson as he arrived for a visit to the UK with May as host.
Neither Johnson nor Trump really took their office’s responsibilities seriously. Both preferred bluster to serious study. They are showmen, not statesmen, given to excessive rhetoric and flashy displays, reveling in the roar of the crowd. Both have a propensity for spreading false claims, even when it’s obvious.
Johnson might have been willing to apologize when caught and cornered, but that was more survival instinct than sincerity. His resignation speech was anything but contrite. Trump seems even more unable to admit his mistakes.
But it’s the differences in the political systems of the two countries that help explain why what happened to Johnson this week never happened to Trump.
British elected officials have much more power to determine who leads their parties and therefore who will become prime minister in a general election. Johnson’s successor will ultimately be determined by a vote of the full Conservative Party membership, grassroots loyalists across the UK. But to get to the final vote, those seeking to lead the party must first survive votes among members of parliament, who winnow the field to the final two candidates.
Trump has never been beholden to elected Republican Party officials, most of whom initially opposed his bid for president. Beyond their ability to endorse someone, they have no significant role in selecting the party’s presidential candidate. Trump hijacked the GOP en route to becoming the 2016 nominee, bent it in his direction and challenged the party establishment to challenge him. He continues to do so.
No one expects incumbent Republicans to turn on Trump at this point. They have invested too much to avoid an internal war with Trump’s most loyal supporters before the 2022 election, where the odds are in their favor. The performance of Trump-endorsed candidates in November could change the calculus of some GOP leaders as they look to 2024 and the question of who the party’s presidential nominee should be.
Yet the role elected officials played in forcing Johnson out of office is a reminder of how Republican leaders in this country — elected lawmakers, former White House officials and members of the Trump cabinet — have chosen a different path.
It is true that political calculations have entered significantly into what happened in Britain this week and political calculations will affect how Republicans respond to Trump in the future. But in the face of what happened on January 6, 2021, only a few Republicans stood up, spoke loudly, and supported this criticism, regardless of the political consequences.