Why Boris Johnson clung on so long – and what finally made him resign

Did PM’s ‘bunker mentality’ and competitive nature stop him from stepping down?

Boris Johnson makes his resignation speech outside 10 Downing Street
Boris Johnson makes his resignation speech outside 10 Downing Street
(Image credit: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson has been described as Britain’s “Teflon leader” for his unmatched ability to withstand crises but even he has proved unable to withstand the recent avalanche of Tory scandals.

The prime minister finally announced his resignation as Tory leader this afternoon, weeks after surviving a confidence vote in the wake of the Partygate scandal. Right up until the last minute, Johnson was refusing to step down, despite facing more ministerial resignations than any PM in history.

The Times reported earlier today that Johnson had told ministers pushing for his resignation that he was “absolutely determined” and “100% ready” to fight a second confidence vote.

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Bunker mentality

The “sheer bloody-mindedness” displayed by the PM in recent days is further evidence of the “bunker mentality” that has prevailed throughout his premiership, said Politico’s London Playbook.

The Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth has argued that Johnson has overseen a “new, super-defensive mode of government where survival is seen as victory”.

The PM demonstrated his determination to survive calls for his resignation, from both outside and within his party, during a “marathon, nine-day overseas” trip last month, said The Guardian’s political correspondent Peter Walker. Throughout his various public appearances, Johnson repeatedly rebuffed “serious questions about his authority and if voters trusted him”, insisting that his “golden rule” was that “politicians should not talk about themselves, just their policies”.

Downing Street insiders have also accused their boss of having a “bunker mentality”, a mindset said to have helped create the culture exposed by the Partygate revelations. An unnamed No. 10 adviser told The Times earlier this year that “there was a sense that we had lashed ourselves to the mast while the rest of the civil service had gone home”.

But in recent days, Johnson’s “bunker mentality” has gone from “bad” to “1944 bunker bad”, a former aide to the PM told London Playbook, in a reference to Adolf Hitler’s retreat underground in the final months of the Second World War. And a “normally reserved MP described the prime minister as appearing ‘detached from reality’”, according to the site.

Non-conformist streak

Another likely factor behind Johnson’s determination to cling to power is his non-conformist streak – a trait that undoubtedly contributed to his winning a sizeable majority in the 2019 general election. “Part of Johnson’s political appeal has always been a public perception that he is not a normal politician who operates by the expected standards,” wrote Politico’s Tim Ross and Eleni Courea following the confidence vote last month.

Throughout his premiership, Johnson “has always ignored the course of action that conventional wisdom says he ‘should’ do, inviting his critics to try to stop him”, said London Playbook.

The Spectator’s deputy political editor Katy Balls agreed, writing before his resignation announcement that Johnson “believes he can be vulnerable if he follows convention – something he has always tried to avoid doing”. An unnamed minister told Balls that the PM was “not a conventional politician, so will not respond to conventional notions of decency”.

“It’s not about what’s good for the party or the country – it’s just about him,” added the insider.

Ultra-competitive nature

The PM’s competitive nature is a further factor in his determination to hold on to the top job, according to commentators. “Johnson is so ultra-competitive that he will never accept he’s losing, even when it’s painfully obvious to others that his side is headed for defeat,” said Politico’s Ross and Courea.

Biographer Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister, said Johnson’s “stubborn refusal to accept defeat” can be dated back to his childhood playing sports both at Eton and at home with his siblings. “He always thinks he can win. He will fight until his dying breath,” Gimson told Politico.

Political commentator Tom Newton Dunn has argued that “the truth is that nobody thrives more on competition than Johnson”.

“He’s the most competitive person any of us have ever met,” Newton Dunn added in an article last year for the London Evening Standard.

‘Avalanche’ of resignations

Pundits are suggesting that the key factor behind Johnson’s decision to finally call it quits as PM was the recent “avalanche” of junior ministerial resignations, which left his government struggling to function.

While Johnson had replaced most of the cabinet members who quit in protest against his leadership, “the resignation of a host of junior ministers” – who “do much of the important work of governing” – had “made his government inviable”, said Stephen Bush today in the Financial Times.

Right now, we essentially have a “non government”, Bush added. “It cannot fulfil its basic functions, and unless we are seriously proposing that its remaining members start holding down three or four different ministerial jobs, it has no serious prospect of being able to.”

And the further challenges of trying to regain public confidence after the Chris Pincher affair, plus two recent by-election defeats, appear to have worn away the last of the PM’s Teflon sheen.

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Kate Samuelson is the newsletter editor, global. She is also a regular guest on award-winning podcast The Week Unwrapped, where she often brings stories with a women’s rights angle. Kate’s career as a journalist began on the MailOnline graduate training scheme, which involved stints as a reporter at the South West News Service’s office in Cambridge and the Liverpool Echo. She moved from MailOnline to Time magazine’s satellite office in London, where she covered current affairs and culture for both the print mag and website. Before joining The Week, Kate worked as the senior stories and content gathering specialist at the global women’s charity ActionAid UK, where she led the planning and delivery of all content gathering trips, from Bangladesh to Brazil. She is passionate about women’s rights and using her skills as a journalist to highlight underrepresented communities.

Alongside her staff roles, Kate has written for various magazines and newspapers including Stylist, Metro.co.uk, The Guardian and the i news site. She is also the founder and editor of Cheapskate London, an award-winning weekly newsletter that curates the best free events with the aim of making the capital more accessible.