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‘That’s it, friends’: Boris Johnson bids ambiguous goodbye

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LONDON — Boris Johnson’s tenure as Britain’s leader was a mixture of high drama and low disgrace. But he left office on Tuesday with a casual shrug of farewell: “Well, that’s it, folks.”

The Prime Minister’s last speech outside 10 Downing Street, delivered before he tendered his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II, was vintage Johnson – a chimerical mix of humor, classical scholarship, ego and an elastic relationship with the truth. And it has left many observers wondering if this is really the end for a leader who has long defied political gravity.

“It was a classic Boris speech,” said Hannah White, acting director of the Institute for Government think tank. “It was very focused on him and his accomplishments. But I think it’s quite clear that he’s healing his wounds. He understands that if he walks away right now, he will continue to be an influential figure. And I think he will bide his time.

For Johnson fans, the speech was a moment to mourn the departure of Britain’s most entertaining modern prime minister – and perhaps to fuel a flame for his return. For critics, it was a reminder of why his administration had crumbled in scandal before it could achieve Johnson’s lofty political goals.

Not that you would have known that from Johnson’s words. He has claimed major successes for his government, including getting Britain out of the European Union, overseeing the deployment of Europe’s fastest COVID-19 vaccine and sending weapons to Ukraine for the to help resist the Russian invasion.

Some of these accomplishments are questionable at best. Johnson says he “did Brexit”, but the aftermath of Britain’s messy and testy divorce from the European Union will upset both sides for decades. Britain has had a rapid rollout of vaccines, but also one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in Europe.

As in his first speech as Prime Minister three years ago, Johnson painted a vision of the high-tech, high-energy Britain of his dreams, a powerhouse in wind power and research and scientific development. Like so much else in his career, it was both a reality and an aspiration.

Some of the successes he claimed are still in the preliminary stages, such as three new high-speed rail lines and “a new nuclear reactor every year.” Others, like welfare reform, remain thorny issues for his successor, Prime Minister Liz Truss.

And there was a sour note in the middle of the boosterism. Johnson has spent his political career ignoring the outrage over his ethical failings and offensive remarks, but was ultimately overthrown when an all-too-big scandal – the awarding of a government post to a lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct – sparked mass resignations in his government.

Johnson made it clear he didn’t want to leave. He said, without explanation, that he was fired because his party “changed the rules mid-term”.

Nonetheless, he turned to one of his beloved classic hints to insist he plans to retire in style.

“Like Cincinnatus, I’m going back to my plow,” Johnson said, a reference to the Roman dictator who relinquished power and returned to his farm to live in peace.

Yet the allusion was ambiguous. Classicist Mary Beard has pointed out that ancient history has a “sting in storytelling”. Years later, Cincinnatus returned to power “to quell a popular uprising of the underprivileged.

“So it’s a risky analogy,” she told the BBC.

Johnson insisted that was really the end of his leadership ambitions.

“I’m like one of those booster rockets that served its purpose, and now I’m going to gently re-enter the atmosphere and crash invisibly into a remote, dark corner of the Pacific,” he said. .

Former Tory leader William Hague saw it as a melancholy image of a leader whose flaws overshadowed his attributes.

“It was a rocket booster that the guidance system failed on,” Hague told Times Radio. “He was this big rising thing in politics, an extraordinary thing, that went wrong unnecessarily. And it is a tragedy for the country and the Conservative Party and for him.

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