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Britain’s Worst Prime Minister: Alexander Boris De Pfeffel Johnson, Prime Minister, Conservative (2019 – 2022)

Cleone Reed Adam Powell Boris Johnson Politics United Kingdom

Here is an article written by Adam Powell, author of
More of History's Worst:
2000 Years of Idiocy from Nero to Trump.

Britain’s Worst Prime Minister

Alexander Boris De Pfeffel Johnson, Prime Minister, Conservative (2019 – 2022)

“Johnson would not recognize truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade.” ~ Max Hastings

 “Boris can't stop lying any more than he can stop blinking. It's involuntary.” ~ Petronella Wyatt, journalist and ex-mistress.

 “I'm voting for Boris because he is a laugh.” ~ London voter in 2008

Apparently, we live in a post-truth age, so Boris Johnson’s premiership should not have come as a shock. How else can you explain the rise of a pathological liar, manifestly unsuited for the job? Yet his rapid fall from grace shows that voters were not as gullible as Johnson believed. Maybe the post-truth age is not quite here.

Before I start, I promise that this article will not be referring to Johnson by his first name, unless it’s a quote. Previously, only royals and much-loved entertainers were given such an honour: John, Paul, George, Ringo, Henry VIII. Johnson is more of a performer than a leader, but the use of his moniker by a sycophantic press is one example of the free pass most of the media gave him. Many editors knew that the emperor had no clothes. Some employed him; one even fired him for lying. Others were aware of Johnson’s illegal parties during lockdown but chose to look the other way. Why? because he seemed to offer right-wingers that electoral pot of gold. A politician who could convince the have-nots to vote for a party of the haves. It’s simpler in the US; conservatives use religion, but secular Britain is more of a challenge, so when a politician promised this realignment, the Tories were not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Even one that lies through its teeth.

Boris Johnson’s popularity was always exaggerated. The electoral magician won Labour London in 2008, but Ken Livingston was well past his sell-buy date. Labour, being Labour, re-nominated Livingston four years later with predictable results. In 2019, Labour once more fulfilled its traditional role of trying to lose elections by sticking with Jeremy Corbyn, the most disliked Leader of the Opposition since polling began. Yet Johnson managed to add less than 400,000 votes to Theresa May’s 2017 shit-show. This hardly qualified him as a political genius (his approval ratings were lower than May’s), but Boris Johnson did have one big asset: he appealed to people who don’t normally vote Conservative. These Red Wall Labour supporters switched to the Tories, often for the first time in their lives. They overlooked his privileged background (Eton, Oxford, edited The Spectator, middle name De Pfeffel) because he was different. Not your typical Tory was the common response, a ‘lovable rogue’ who didn’t mind bending a few rules. Swathes of constituencies in the former industrial regions were captured from Labour, and, though the vote fell in Tory heartlands, it wasn’t enough to stop Johnson from achieving the best Conservative result since 1987.

But the seeds of decline were already being sown. Johnson took his victory as carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, and people were about to find out what that meant. The US system of checks and balances can frustrate Americans, usually when their party controls the presidency, but they’re thankful when the other lot is in the Oval Office. Britain has few brakes on the powers of the prime minister, whose party rarely achieves 50 percent of the vote.[1] Our unwritten constitution relies on what Peter Hennessey called ‘the good chap theory of government’[2] where the incumbent can always be trusted to act with restraint. But when a ‘bad chap’ is elected, the system falls apart. Johnson’s sense of impunity was deeply rooted. A teacher at Eton once wrote, "I think [Johnson] honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else."[3] At Oxford, he was a member of the Bullingdon Club, a clique of hoorays who drunkenly wrecked restaurants knowing someone else would pay (usually their dads). Boris Johnson has been metaphorically wrecking things ever since, and it’s us who’ll be paying for a long time.

Johnson qualifies to be one of history’s worst prime ministers, not because of his ideology (he travels light) but for his behaviour. There simply isn’t space to recount all his failures, corruption, and lies, so the following list represents just the low-lights.[4] For a fuller list, Peter Oborne produced a wonderful website[5] while this piece is indebted to his book, The Assault on Truth. Boris Johnson’s laziness, mendacity, and sheer nastiness have left a terrible legacy, but most damning of all was his handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. Two of his decisions caused at least 40,000 Britons to die needlessly. Put in context, the UK has lost 7,190 servicemen[6] in ALL WARS since 1945. Johnson’s apologists have pedalled the myth that, despite his peccadillos, he ‘made the right calls’ over Covid-19. He did make the right call over going into lockdown, but it was at least a week after other nations. Italy started on the March 10, Spain on the 14th. Netherland shut on March 16, the same day Germany closed its schools, having banned large public gatherings as early as the 9th. Britain locked down on March 23. Did a few days matter? Yes, before vaccines, every day the virus spread unchecked caused the deaths of thousands. Professor Neil Ferguson, head of the Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team, estimated that around 20,000 people died as a result of just one week’s delay.[7]  

It wasn’t just the lateness of the lockdown, but Boris Johnson’s initial behaviour was also reprehensible. Nowhere is this better illustrated than his speech at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich on February 3. Re-reading it, the word ‘hubris’ springs to mind, ‘Shakespearean’ even, if Boris Johnson’s premiership didn’t resemble a Brian Rix farce rather than a tragedy by the Bard. When he stood up in that beautiful baroque hall he was master of the political landscape: Remainers, Labour, Farage, his Tory rivals, all vanquished or irrelevant. Pointing to Thornhill’s painting of the Glorious Revolution, he drew parallels with Brexit Britain. We were about to enter a golden age, he said, but… but doomsayers were talking about some virus in China and panicking. Not the New Winston Churchill though—he would lead the fight for free trade. Britain was “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles, leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion.”[8] Guess who’s going to play Superman?

These doomsayers weren’t all on the hard left. Right-wing papers like The Daily Mail and Telegraph also warned Johnson about the lack of preparedness. It was a month after the Chinese government had admitted to the world the seriousness of the Wuhan outbreaks, while, closer to home, The Lancet had just published a detailed report about the dangers of Covid-19.[9] Johnson ignored these warnings, trashing his later excuse that he ‘followed the science’. He followed the advice of government scientists representing department interests and hesitated. Leaders are responsible for whom they listen to and the decisions they make; “The Buck Stops Here” was a sign on President Truman’s desk and Johnson is an inveterate buck passer when things go wrong. For example, he blamed care homes for his own government’s failures, saying the reason for so many Covid-19 deaths there was because care workers did not follow the proper procedures. Nadia Ahmed of the National Care Association called Johnson’s comments “a huge slap in the face for a sector that looks after a million vulnerable people.”[10] The real reason was the government decided to move elderly people from hospitals during the early stages of the crisis because the NHS was overwhelmed. After a decade of cuts, they couldn’t cope. Nurses were using bin bags in place of PPE equipment, 40 percent of which were too old to use. Nor were these vulnerable patients tested in the way they were in Germany,[11] creating the greatest mortality levels of the whole crisis, as sick, elderly patients were dumped in residential homes to spread the disease.

Johnson’s inertia had several reasons. His libertarian instincts were partly to blame. The Tories have been moving in this direction since the 1970s, unlike most conservative parties on the continent. This explained why some centre-right governments coped well with the crisis (Germany, the Netherlands) while Britain and Trump’s America did not. Libertarianism has things to recommend, like personal freedom, but not when swift and decisive action is required by the state. Another reason might have been Brexit. Johnson thought the pandemic was a distraction from what he believed was his signature achievement. Twenty thousand civil servants were working on its planning when the crisis broke, and Johnson wasn’t about to restrict Brexit Britain’s buccaneering capitalist spirit. There was also a feeling in Downing Street that people would not tolerate the impositions of a lockdown. This was a reasonable assumption if you judge people by your standards. The British people, by and large, did follow the rules. It was Johnson and his cronies who broke them. Just like that school report forty years ago, he continued to believe that the “network of obligation” did not apply to him.  

Boris Johnson is also lazy and unfocused. Notorious for ducking or tuning out of long meetings, bored by detail, Johnson hoped a witty phrase could make up for his lack of grasp. “You campaign in poetry and govern in prose” Mario Cuomo famously said. Johnson doesn’t do prose but the pandemic required detailed knowledge of the rapidly-changing situation. Contrast his approach with Angela Merkel’s sober, rational decision-making. Hey, but who cares that Germany had a lower death rate; Merkel’s not nearly as much fun! Would the driven Theresa May or Gordon Brown have coped any better? Probably. They certainly wouldn’t have missed five consecutive COBRA meetings as the crisis was developing.[12] Neither would they have taken a holiday at the charming, taxpayer-funded, estate of Chevening in February when the virus had been raised to a “level 4 critical incident.”[13] Johnson had just enjoyed a break sunning himself in Mustique, so he can’t have been that exhausted. Certainly not as tired as the bin-bagged nurses or the social care workers he was quick to blame. Boris Johnson absurdly compares himself to Churchill, but during the war, Winston[14] regularly put in 18-hour shifts. He offered the nation "blood, toil, sweat, and tears." Johnson, as one of his advisors told the Sunday Times, "didn't work weekends", and "there was a real sense that he didn't do urgent crisis planning."[15] Churchill never flunked off for a bit of 'me time' during the Blitz.

Boris Johnson spent the first few weeks of the crisis undermining efforts to prepare Britain for the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish Flu. Matt Hancock, a nodding dog who doubled up as Health Secretary, assured the Commons, “The whole of the UK is always well prepared for these types of outbreaks.”[16] We weren’t. Vital equipment for hospitals was not stocked. Sporting events were allowed to continue. The best Johnson could do was to tell people to wash their hands while “singing happy birthday twice”. Many people would not see their next birthdays. He publicly boasted of shaking hands (at a hospital with Covid-19 patients FFS) on the day government advisors told the public not to do so.[17] Johnson attended a rugby match on March 7 that should have been cancelled, as should the ten Premier League games that weekend. Taking its cue from the prime minister,[18] the Cheltenham Festival went ahead. Forty-one died unnecessarily as 250,000 people congregated over four days.[19] Another surreal decision was to allow Atletico Madrid to play Liverpool on March 10, the day the WHO announced Covid-19 was a pandemic. Spain was one of the first countries outside China to experience a Coronavirus wave, yet fans were allowed to travel to Merseyside with fatal consequences: thirty-seven died.[20] None of this seems to have bothered our the gagmeister. The day before, Johnson thought “taking it on the chin” was okay and “allowing the disease, as it were, to move through the population.”[21] Even the Trump administration did not pursue herd immunity and thought the British had gone “nuts”. As one US official said, “We thought they were out of their minds. We told them it would be an absolutely devastating approach to deal with the pandemic…”[22] Similarly, Ireland and France considered preventing Britons from entering their countries. To make matters worse, the government abandoned community testing on March 12, driven by a lack of testing capacity, despite the virus now spreading rapidly across the UK.[23] But, encouraged by Downing Street, the nation kept calm and carried on. We’re Britain after all and not like those continentals. On Friday, March 20, the Snowdonia National Park enjoyed "the busiest visitor day in living memory."[24]

The behaviour of Boris Johnson in the first three months of 2020 qualifies him for the Worst Prime Minister in History list. Comfortably. We were the first nation in Europe to reach 150,000 death. Fatalities were inevitable everywhere, but determined governments reduced them. The initial European outbreaks were in Spain and Italy, giving us time to prepare; other nations did, but Johnson squandered so many opportunities. For instance, we had the advantage of being an island, but we didn’t even monitor ports and airports. What is perhaps most unforgivable is he made the same mistake in September. As cases rose again, SAGE[25] warned of another “very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”[26] unless the government imposed a second ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown. Johnson initially refused and said, “Let the bodies pile.”[27] The inevitable happened. Cases sky-rocketed and Johnson was later forced to impose an even longer and stricter lockdown. The bodies did pile high – 27,000 died unnecessarily.[28] 

During lockdown, Johnson regularly stood in front of lecterns asking people to sacrifice personal freedoms to contain the virus. This will “'help us delay and flatten the peak, squash that sombrero.”[29] Fair comment. However, those in power had a more flexible approach to the rules. On March 27, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief political advisor, drove to his parent’s home near Durham, despite his wife having Coronavirus symptoms. Cummings became ill the next day. Travelling to another part of the country was expressly forbidden. Cummings knew this as he (and his journalist wife) never mentioned where they were staying when they wrote articles about their illness. It was only when investigative journalists exposed the trip that all hell broke loose. Durham at the time had no Covid-19 cases so the Cummings might have risked spreading the disease to the North-East (giving a new meaning to levelling up). Worse was to follow. It emerged that he had taken a trip to a local beauty spot, Barnard Castle, on his wife’s birthday. His excuse was straight out of The Thick of It. He had driven there to test his eyesight before returning to London. Any other leader would have fired him immediately but Johnson chose not to, which brings us to another fault: like Trump, loyalty is more important than competency and honesty. It was almost impossible to be sacked providing you supported the Infallible One. The die was cast when Andrew Sabisky, an obscure government ‘super-forecaster’ (I have no idea either) turned out to have previously expressed poisonous views on race and class. Johnson would not even explicitly distance himself from these views (and Johnson is many things but he’s not a racist), nor did he fire him. Only an outcry from BAME Tory MPs forced Sabisky out. Priti Patel should never have been reappointed to the Cabinet after undermining Theresa May’s foreign policy. Even Patel admitted that her actions “fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state.”[30] But Johnson gave her the senior post of Home Secretary. She had supported him for the leadership so that was all that mattered. In November 2020, Alex Allan, the government’s Standards Chief, found Patel guilty of bullying staff. Johnson should have sent her packing but publicly defended her, causing Allan to resign.[31] Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, kept his job despite trying to speed up a planning application to save a donor some tax. The Health Secretary, Door Matt Hancock, was caught snogging his mistress, thus breaking social distancing rules, but Johnson refused to fire him. After a few hours of contemplation, Door Matt realised his position was untenable and resigned. He couldn’t very well appear on TV telling us to obey the rules. Johnson later lied and said he actually had sacked him.

This was typical of Johnson, blurring the lines between truth and fiction. Johnson’s talent and predilection for falsehood is worth examining as it’s integral to understanding his premiership. Johnson is an experienced liar and knows that telling one porky after another doesn’t work. He would soon be rumbled. Rather, he mixes lies with half-truths, exaggerations, irrelevant information, and even the odd fact. Rory Stewart, the former Tory MP wrote, “Sometimes he does it by pretending to be ignorant; sometimes he does it with a joke; sometimes he does it by ignoring the question… He’s probably the best liar we’ve ever had as a prime minister. He knows a hundred different ways to lie.”[32] And what’s more, his team is expected to fib as well. This was not a problem for Dominic Cummings. He’s an admirer of the German communist, Willi Munzenberg, who believed “lying for the truth” was acceptable.[33] If the cause was right, then anything goes. I doubt Door Matt has read Munzenberg but he claimed that the first lockdown started on March 16, not a week later.[34] Even the relatively honest Sajid Javid caught Coronavirus. Johnson lied during that 2019 election that he would build 40 new hospitals. This was not possible given the funding his government had committed to health. So, facts be damned, he decided to count extensions to existing hospitals as… new hospitals.[35] This is like building a garden shed and saying it’s your second home. Sajid Javid opened a cancer care unit in August 2021 at Cumberland Infirmary saying, “It’s been a pleasure to come here today to be invited to open the new hospital.”[36] Ten months later, Javid quit the Cabinet over the Pincher affair; he was sick of having to defend Johnson in the media after not being told the whole truth, though he must have known that Cumberland Infirmary, a Victorian pile, was over a hundred years old. 

Aside from the unnecessary Covid-19 deaths, the most sinister aspect of Boris Johnson’s premiership was his attempt to enfeeble organisations he saw as disloyal. Johnson is after all a populist, and while populists frequently talk about the rights of the people, they do their best to ignore or even destroy democratic norms. His consigliere in all this was Dominic Cummings – Steve Bannon to Johnson’s Trump. Cummings wanted senior civil servants replaced with more pliable figures, which came in handy during Covid-19.[37] Relations between politicians and their civil servants are not always smooth, but what was new was the relentless hounding of the non-political arm of government. An unprecedented six permanent secretaries had gone or were leaving by September 2020.[38]  The BBC, once globally respected as a model of independent state broadcasting, was thoroughly frightened by a potential ‘review’ of its funding. One of Johnson’s parting shots was the start of Channel 4’s privatization, another channel long disliked by the right.[39] Hostile media were excluded from press conferences.[40] The judiciary’s power was questioned. The growth of judicial review has been an encouraging development over the last 50 years, but Johnson’s government frequently and publicly attacked judges who made decisions it didn’t like, notably when the Supreme Court forced him to reopen Parliament to scrutinize Brexit. Cummings wanted to get “judges sorted out.”[41] The Tory papers were willing accomplices; The Sun wrote that “no Supreme Court judge was safe in their beds.”[42] Sadly it worked. Judges are human after all, and judicial decisions have started to go more frequently the government’s way.[43]   

Populists need enemies to distract from their shortcomings and for Johnson, it was the EU. Pointless, economically damaging fights with the European Union were necessary to hold his electoral coalition together. The most worrying was his threat to ignore the Northern Ireland Protocol, which endangers the Good Friday Agreement. He was prepared to risk a return to violence for political gain. Remainers, the EU’s fifth column, also needed to be disparaged, despite Johnson’s pledge to unify the country when he became prime minister. These ‘woke warriors,’ when not wrecking statues of British heroes or singing the national anthem too quietly, were weakening our resolve to stand up to foreign aggression.[44] Conservative MPs who failed his Brexit loyalty test were drummed out of the party, depriving the government of experienced ministers during the pandemic.[45] And for what? criticizing a deal that will cost twice as much as Covid-19 and is already starting to unravel.

“And there’s more”, as Jimmy Cricket used to say. The Mustique holiday’s funding was one example of Boris Johnson’s cavalier attitude to money. He complained that his £164,000 salary wasn’t enough to live on and expected others to fund his lavish lifestyle. This raised some thorny issues about the influence donations buy. After much obfuscation our part-time PM admitted a supporter, David Ross, had paid for the winter getaway, thus breaching Article 14 of the House of Commons Code of Conduct.[46] Similarly, His Highness thought the Downing Street flat for Carrie and him was too dingy. Carrie Antoinette described it as a “John Lewis nightmare”, but planned renovations vastly exceeded the meagre £30,000 allowance they could claim. Where there’s a bill there’s a donor, and Tory peer David Brownlow offered to pay, including £840-a-roll wallpaper, at a time when food banks were rising exponentially. Of course, Brownlow’s later appointment as chair of the Downing Street Trust was entirely coincidental. Some woke warriors have unfairly pointed out a connection between government contracts and jobs and ‘who you know’ in Johnson’s government. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Door Matt’s sister[47] and the landlord of his local pub[48] received Covid-related contracts entirely on merit. As was over two billion pounds of pandemic-related work awarded to companies that had donated to the Conservative Party.[49] It didn’t end happily for Johnson though. An old mate, Owen Paterson MP, worked for Randox, a company hired to supply testing kits. The award raised eyebrows. No records were kept when Paterson approached the relevant minister nor had other firms been allowed to bid. The Commissioner for Standards found that "no previous case of paid advocacy has seen so many breaches or such a clear pattern of behaviour in failing to separate private and public interests.”[50] Paterson was suspended for 30 sitting days. Not a brutal punishment. He’d have been fired in any other job. But Paterson was a fellow Brexit campaigner, so the government tried to select a new committee to clear him retrospectively. This provoked outrage and the plan was abandoned. Paterson resigned from the Commons.

Boris Johnson loves buses. He makes models of them to relax. His campaign for new Routemasters might have won him the London Mayoralty. He plastered a great big lie on his tour bus during the Brexit campaign.[51] Perhaps it’s appropriate to ask when did people get off the bus? When did they think Boris Johnson had to go? Some of us were never on board, but by December 2021 most were ringing the bell. We turn to ‘Partygate’, of course. His polling had improved with the rollout of the vaccine in early 2021. It’s arguably his only major achievement, though how much was down to him rather than Kate Bingham,[52] Patrick Vallance,[53] and the thousands of health workers and volunteers is debatable. But by the winter his popularity was in decline. The Liberal Democrats believed they would have taken Paterson’s safe seat of North Shropshire even without Partygate,[54] but the revelation that Downing Street frolicked while people couldn’t even say goodbye to their dying loved ones was the final straw for many. The details are well known and don’t need rehashing, though a few facts stand out. The 126 fixed penalty notices meant Downing Street was the greatest venue for law-breaking in the country. Johnson was the only prime minister ever to be found guilty of an offence while in office. He was lucky to have escaped police investigation for the ‘Abba party’ at his flat, which was inexplicably called off.

Ukraine and the implosion of his main rival Rishi Sunak brought him a few months but an unpopular populist was never going to last. Terrible local elections, a record-breaking by-election loss in Devon, and rock-bottom approval ratings seriously unnerved Conservative MPs. The Pincher Affair (typically Johnson had lied about not knowing Pincher’s record as a sex pest when he appointed him Deputy Chief Whip) was the excuse they’d been waiting for. Fifty-seven ministers resigned and Boris Johnson finally realised the game was up. His graceless resignation speech was characteristic. He took no responsibility for his fall, but blamed others for this “eccentric” decision and for following a “herd instinct”.[55]

It would be naïve to think that prime ministers before Boris Johnson were always honest. It would also be cynical to believe that Johnson’s behaviour was normal. He degraded public life and infected those around him. His legislative record was thin, and his failures during the pandemic unforgivable, while Johnson’s Brexit deal has cost the UK economy hugely. Some found his buffoonery amusing; others thought that if you elect a clown you get a circus. Sadly, they were right.



[1] 1935 is the last time.

[2] Hennessy has now admitted his theory is fundamentally flawed after observing Boris Johnson’s government.


[4] The bolded text will indicate an example of Boris Johnson’s failings.







[11] By June 2020, 16,000 UK care home residents had died, in Germany the figure was 3,000 (Oborne, p. 84)

[12] COBRA is the Civil Contingencies Committee, so-named as it meets in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A. Prime ministers are not expected to attend all of them but not attending five in a crisis was a clear breach of duty.


[14] I’ve no problem calling Winston Churchill by his first name.











[25] SAGE is the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.








[33] Oborne (p.147-8).


[35] This wasn’t the only creative approach to facts about health during the 2019 campaign. He promised to recruit 50,000 new nurses. This figure included retaining existing nurses who were planning to leave the NHS.


[37] Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, had attended at least one bash, while Martin Reynolds, BJ’s Principal Private secretary (‘Party Marty’ as he became known) had been involved in the cover-ups.

[38] Oborne, 103

[39] Ironically, the Channel was created by Margaret Thatcher






[45] Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, David Gaulke and Dominic Grieve to name but a few.






[51] “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead”.

[52] Chair of the Vaccine Taskforce

[53] Chief Scientific Advisor

[54] This is based on postal votes sent before the revelations about Downing Street parties. They showed a huge swing from the Conservatives. ‘Partygate’ ensured a comfortable Liberal Democrat win rather than a close one.



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