Q&A: Rory Stewart on Boris Johnson’s resignation
In the wake of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s July 7 announcement that he would resign his office under pressure from his party and cabinet, Yale News spoke with Rory Stewart, a former U.K. secretary of state for international development and Conservative Party MP who recently taught politics as a senior fellow in Yale’s Jackson School of Global Affairs.
Johnson’s resignation will end a scandal-plauged tenure that involved controversies about Brexit, renovations to the prime minister’s residence, parties at 10 Downing Street during COVID-19 lockdown, and lobbyists, among others.
Here, Stewart, who also taught international relations and has previously contended for prime minister and the mayoralty of London, addresses Johnson’s downfall, challenges ahead for the U.K., and measures Stewart says are needed to ensure that future British prime ministers respect the rules governing their conduct. Interview condensed and edited.
What do you make of Boris Johnson’s decision to step down?
Rory Stewart: It is a huge relief. Boris Johnson was doing the most extraordinary damage to our government and our unwritten constitution. He is a frightening example of what a ruthless person with no respect for the unwritten rules of our system can achieve. And I’m afraid it’s a wake-up call. It will force us to think about the hazards of relying on an unwritten constitution and to strongly consider adopting a written one.
That means thinking hard about how we get better politicians, how we change our electoral system to freshen up our parties, and how to establish much firmer rules to stop someone in the future from doing the sorts of things that Johnson did repeatedly.
What pressing issues will face the next prime minister, whoever it may be?
Stewart: It’s a very difficult time for the United Kingdom and the world. We’re facing some of the worst inflation we’ve had in decades. Our economy is teetering on the brink of another recession. We are dealing with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. [In the U.K.], Brexit has left us very exposed to global trading systems. We made a big bet in leaving the European Union and moving towards trade with China and other countries. But that bet is now unravelling as people become more concerned about China’s influence. It’s just an incredibly difficult time to run the country, but we badly need serious leaders who are willing to face these problems honestly and forthrightly.
You mentioned the need to consider a written constitution. Is that likely to happen?
Stewart: I would think that almost any candidate, regardless of their party, needs to think seriously about having a constitutional convention and getting a written constitution in place and possibly changing our electoral system. For many centuries, our system of government has been based on a series of informal codes and what are essentially gentleman’s agreements. Boris Johnson tore those to pieces and demonstrated that they are largely unenforceable.
You’ve taught politics and international relations at the Jackson School. What lessons can your students learn from studying the last few years in British politics?
Stewart: I think Boris Johnson took advantage of the global rise in populism that’s been happening since about 2014, stretching from Narendra Modi in India to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and, of course, to Donald Trump in the United States. It’s a style of politics that is not at all concerned with the truth. In fact, it’s post-truth. It’s about demonizing the competition. It’s highly polarizing. It exposes vulnerabilities in liberal democracies and demonstrates how that fragility is posing a danger to us all.