How U.S., U.K. punish their leaders in different ways

Alberto Pezzali/AP
A demonstrator holds a placard depicting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson while attending a protest outside the gates of Downing Street in London, May 27, 2022. Mr. Johnson has been losing popular support among voters who no longer trust his word, after his denials that he had attended illegal parties that broke lockdown rules.
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week narrowly survived a no-confidence motion by his own party in Parliament. But the way in which he has kept his job illustrates key differences between the British and American ways of dealing with charismatic leaders flouting long-established safeguards to “get things done” on their own terms.

Former President Donald Trump, subject to the written U.S. Constitution and a web of codified checks and balances, withstood two impeachment attempts. But Mr. Johnson has possibly been fatally wounded by a much vaguer sense in London that he should “do the right thing,” after being fined by police for attending illegal lockdown parties.

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Democracies differ over how to govern politicians’ behavior. The U.S. relies on written constitutional rules, while Britons’ sense of fair play might be enough to bring down Boris Johnson.

Behind each man’s fate stands the public. In the United States, Mr. Trump appears still to enjoy strong support among Republican voters, and the gladiatorial divide in U.S. politics makes the prospect of common ground across party lines remote.

In Britain, on the other hand, opinion polls reveal a swell of disapproval of Mr. Johnson among ordinary voters who no longer trust his word, nor think he shares the British sense of “fair play” and what is right and proper for a politician to do and say. That could sound his political death knell.

The parallels are powerful: on one side of the Atlantic, former U.S. President Donald Trump; on the other, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – flamboyantly norm-busting politicians, both, who have sorely tested the resilience of the Western world’s two oldest democracies.

But events this week in London, where Mr. Johnson only narrowly survived a no-confidence vote by his own Conservative Party colleagues in Parliament, have highlighted key differences in how each country has responded to charismatic leaders flouting long-established safeguards in public life and promising to “get things done” on their own terms.

And surprisingly, it’s Britain that seems better poised to weather the storm.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Democracies differ over how to govern politicians’ behavior. The U.S. relies on written constitutional rules, while Britons’ sense of fair play might be enough to bring down Boris Johnson.

On the face of it, the United States might have seemed more strongly equipped to respond, given its web of codified checks and balances underpinning the founders’ concern to keep a single-minded leader from bending the system to his will. Britain’s democracy, lacking a written constitution, has relied on precedent, tradition, and the assumption that politicians on all sides would abide by them.

But it’s not the institutional guardrails of British government, nor even the members of Parliament who tried to topple him, that have led to Mr. Johnson’s reversal of political fortune, barely two years after leading his party to its largest parliamentary majority for more than three decades.

Rather, it is ordinary Britons, of all parties and regions, whose shift of judgment has been borne out by recent opinion polls.

And this is not principally because of matters of policy. It is instead down to issues of personal behavior and ethical values.

Quaint though it may sound to American ears, the grassroots pushback seems a reassertion of what Britons like to describe as “fair play,” and a broadly accepted sense of what is right and proper for their political leaders to do and say.

Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/Reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks as he takes questions at the House of Commons in London, June 8, 2022.

The main catalyst has been a series of eating-and-drinking parties in No. 10 Downing Street during the pandemic lockdown, in violation of rules Mr. Johnson himself dictated that prevented citizens even from visiting family members in hospitals or care homes.

Mr. Johnson has made things worse for himself with repeated denials in Parliament that the parties happened – denials not believed by the police, who have recently issued a series of fines, including one to the prime minister himself, for disregarding the legal regulations. That implies that he misled Parliament, a grave breach of convention – to which he’s responded by insisting he hadn’t “knowingly” done so.

What this will all mean for Mr. Johnson’s future is unclear. He remains prime minister, and though wounded, he could well hang on even though more than 4 in 10 of his own MPs voted to oust him.

But whereas in Washington the clearly worded constitutional provisions for presidential impeachment failed to unseat Mr. Trump, in London the much vaguer sense that the prime minister should “do the right thing” may well prove Mr. Johnson’s downfall in the coming months.

If so, his fate will likely be sealed by the fact that ordinary voters are mostly convinced that Mr. Johnson’s word cannot be trusted.

And there lies the starkest contrast between his position and that of his political soulmate across the ocean.

Former President Trump’s influence is weaker than when he was in office. He may face legal or political challenges related to his business dealings or, even more seriously, to his supporters’ assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 last year.

But he retains a powerful hold on the Republican Party. And, unlike Mr. Johnson, nothing he has said or done seems to have weakened his appeal to his huge number of grassroots supporters.  

This suggests a more fundamental difference between the political atmospheres in both countries.

As long as Mr. Trump holds on to a large base of Republican voters, it’s hard to envisage a significant number of his party’s politicians contemplating anything like the rebellion mounted by Conservative MPs in Britain.

At the same time, the almost gladiatorial divide in the United States has limited the prospect of finding common ground across party lines.

Britain, too, is deeply divided, as evidenced by the close-run 2016 referendum to end the country’s decadeslong membership in the European Union. Mr. Johnson led that campaign, but the move against him in Parliament this week suggests the mood has changed and that, unlike in the U.S., concerns about the prime minister’s moral compass may transcend policy issues or partisan loyalties.

His tattered reputation could scarcely contrast more tellingly with the prestige of last weekend’s popular star, Queen Elizabeth II, who was celebrating the Platinum Jubilee of her accession to the throne.

Nearly 20 million people took part in street parties and other celebrations nationwide in tribute to her 70-year reign and her determination to keep the monarchy above the partisan fray.

When Mr. Johnson arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral for a Jubilee thanksgiving service, he was booed.

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