Foreign Affairs

The Scandalous Dominions of King John and PM Johnson

It seems Boris Johnson’s luck ran out this summer. Plagued by scandals, the UK prime minister announced his resignation in July. He did so amid a torrent of resignations by ministers from his own government and mounting pressure from within his own party. 

A dominion belabored by scandal, war, disease, and ultimate betrayal— Britons have seen this before. King John of England, whose infamous reign stretched from 1199 to 1216 CE, prefigures Johnson in more than name alone. 

The parallels start early. John was the youngest surviving son of King Henry II of England and although Johnson is not royalty, he too came from an upper-class background. Despite their privileged upbringings, neither enjoyed early professional or political success. John’s appointment as Lord of Ireland in 1177 saw the loss of military ground against the Irish (for which he blamed the viceroy, Hugh de Lacy) and his later participation in a rebellion against the royal administrators of his brother, King Richard, ultimately ended in failure. 

Boris Johnson endured comparable disappointment. After being fired as a young journalist for fabricating quotes and subsequently attempting to enter politics, Johnson scraped a measly 23% of the vote in his first general election in 1997. 

Accountability did not come naturally to either character, a trend that would persist throughout their political careers. For both King John and Johnson, success came with the downfall of their predecessors. John’s reign began following the death of his brother Richard in 1199. Then, 820 years later and basking in Theresa May’s struggle to secure a Brexit divorce deal acceptable to both the bloc and Britain’s Parliament, Johnson’s promise to “Get Brexit done” won him the prime minister’s job in 2019.

Upon their ascensions, both King John and Johnson’s rules were marred by their own penny-snatching duplicity. King John exploited his feudal rights by extorting money through extensive taxes in order to fund expensive crusades that regularly ended in failure. John was also accused of hoarding wealth for personal use. Similarly, Johnson has faced comparable criticisms of wastefulness and inappropriate spending of ministerial funds for personal ends. Seemingly antithetical to his Party’s self-reputed emphasis on fiscal responsibility, Operation Moonshot— the track and trace system estimated at £200bn— was described by a former World Health Organization director as, “waste/corruption on a cosmic scale.” 

To make up the cost, Johnson reinvented a page from King John’s playbook; rather than stealing from the poor, he implemented benefit cuts that risked the impoverishment of over 800,000 people. Courtesy of the Prime Minister’s Brexit negotiations, the introduction of new Value-Added Tax (VAT) rules on goods moved to and from the EU echoes King John’s taxes on foreign imports. Johnson has also been accused of misappropriating ministerial funds, with the most famous case being the controversy over the funding of home improvements at the prime minister’s Downing Street flat.

Then, there is the issue of international reputation. Through indecisiveness and misjudgment, King John lost the huge Angevin Empire, which had previously spanned much of France. In a similar fashion, Johnson’s negotiation of the de facto Brexit border at Kent for lorry drivers traveling on to the EU in effect brought the French border closer to home, causing major supply line disruptions in the process. More broadly, Johnson’s handling of Brexit negotiations, the coronavirus pandemic, a refugee crisis, as well as the list of personal scandals have dampened hopes for the notion of a new “Global Britain” post-Brexit. As one reporter asked Johnson at a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “Why should the international community take your diplomacy seriously when you are so preoccupied at home?”

The Magna Carta, a royal charter of rights formulated to address oppression from an autocratic ruler, is King John’s most significant legacy. Ultimately, the charter enshrines the principle that the government, too, is subject to the rule of law. Though its contents applied to the practical matters and specific grievances that long pre-existed King John’s reign, the presence of a tyrannical ruler who considered himself above the law hastened its passing. Despite the Magna Carta’s passage over eight centuries ago, Johnson’s actions throughout his ministry suggest that he too considers himself to hold a privileged legal position above the people he claims to serve. After fudging his way through the Leave campaign’s electoral irregularities, he prorogued parliament to allow for executive fiat, presided over a ‘cash for peerages’ scheme, and repeatedly broke his own COVID-19 lockdown laws in a boozy scandal that has come to be known as Partygate. It seems Johnson would benefit from a refresher on 13th-century legal theory. Perhaps a passion project for retirement?

Finally, it is in downfall where the King and Prime Minister are most analogous. Faced with an armed revolt among discontented barons, King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta charter of liberties in 1215 CE, which significantly curbed monarchical power. Johnson, too, faced an uprising among the political elites. Though he narrowly survived a confidence vote in his leadership among Conservative MPs in June 2022, the Chris Pincher scandal in July 2022 led to the largest number of ministerial resignations in a 24-hour period and the begrudging resignation of party leadership.

The catalog of similarities between the 12th century King and the 21st century Prime Minister could continue, from illegitimate offspring to poor relations with European leaders to racist commentary. King John has gone down in history as one of the worst of English kings. Time will tell how history will judge Boris Johnson, King John’s most recent political scion.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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