Stephen Collins: Like Haughey, Boris Johnson is a survivor

Despite many flaws, British PM may be around far longer than his critics suspect

With each passing week the parallels between Boris Johnson and Charles Haughey, the most controversial taoiseach in Irish political history, become more obvious. The outsize personalities, the cult of leadership, the demonisation of opponents inside and outside their parties, and the determination to cling on to power regardless of the odds are all so similar.

Both regarded themselves as men of destiny. From childhood, Johnson wanted to be “King of the World” while Haughey never made any secret of his self-image as an Irish chieftain of old, who epitomised the values of his people, even if his lifestyle had very little in common with them.

What cannot be denied is that both men appealed to a broad cross-section of voters in their respective countries who were attracted by their brand of swaggering nationalism. In Johnson’s case, it is his antipathy to the European Union and everything it stands for; Haughey’s crude anti-British rhetoric was at the core of his appeal.

The febrile atmosphere in the British political and media world at present is so reminiscent of Irish politics in the Haughey era

Both men took over their parties, which had long been the dominant ones in their political systems, against the wishes of the party establishment and proceeded to promote people who would never have been remotely considered cabinet minister material in previous generations.


Haughey had to withstand three attempts to remove him during his early years in office and survived a fourth near the end. Johnson has been at the centre of a political storm for months on a succession of issues, most crucially the lockdown parties in Downing Street.

The febrile atmosphere in the British political and media world at present is so reminiscent of Irish politics in the Haughey era: drama in the parliament, intimidation of dissident backbenchers, abuse of political opponents and frenzied media reporting, most of it wrongly predicting the imminent removal of the leader.

Fireworks inevitable

It all makes for great entertainment but whether it makes any sense for the British political system to become bogged down in such drama when there are so many genuinely important issues to be dealt with is another matter. Yet for as long as Johnson remains leader, fireworks of one kind or another are inevitable.

Johnson and Haughey came to power, despite character flaws, because enough of their parliamentary colleagues believed they would prove to be an electoral asset

Both Johnson and Haughey came to power, despite their obvious character flaws, because enough of their parliamentary colleagues believed that they would prove to be an electoral asset. Of course it was ever thus in democratic policies. The great Victorian writer Anthony Trollope, who had a deep insight into the workings of politics, described the attractions of his fictional prime minister, Daubeney, believed to have been based on Disraeli, in the following terms: “He had achieved his place by skill rather than by principle, by the conviction on men’s minds that he was necessary, not that he was fit.”

Johnson did indeed become prime minister because enough of his MPs thought that while he was unfit in so many ways to hold the office, it was necessary if the Conservative Party was to unite, get Brexit done and win an election.

On those crude criteria Johnson certainly fulfilled the expectations of his supporters by winning the general election of 2019 after a barnstorming campaign. His ability to attract former Labour voters by sheer force of personality was critical to his electoral success. Since then, however, it has been downhill all the way.

Wrong temperament

That is partly because Johnson’s unconventional approach to politics, which was appealing to so many voters, has unsurprisingly resulted in such irresponsible behaviour in Downing Street. More importantly it has become increasingly obvious that he doesn’t have the temperament or application to make the difficult choices that inevitably arise in government.

As those choices are forced on him, he will have to either disappoint either the hardcore Brexiteers, like David Frost, who want to cut all ties with the EU regardless of the economic consequences, or the voters in the north of England in particular who are expecting him to focus on the “levelling up” agenda. Satisfying the small-state, low-tax, anti-regulation Tories, while at the same time looking after those who want a substantial increase in public spending will be a daunting task.

Johnson may have something to learn from Haughey when it comes to managing conflicting aspirations and surviving what look like impossible odds. During his period in opposition in the 1980s, Haughey denounced the economic policies of the Fine Gael-Labour government led by Garret FitzGerald and tried to sabotage the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, claiming it was unconstitutional.

Johnson has already shown a steely side to his character in his purge of internal opponents

Yet in government, Haughey adopted FitzGerald’s economic policies, with the support of Fine Gael, and implemented the Anglo-Irish Agreement, including the use of extradition for terrorist offences. It proved to be his most productive period in the taoiseach’s office.

Haughey was only removed from the leadership a full decade after the first failed attempts to depose him. Johnson has already shown a steely side to his character in his purge of internal opponents in the autumn of 2019 and his subsequent demotion of talented ministers who did not display abject loyalty. The future in politics is always impossible to predict but if Johnson follows the Haughey example, he may be around for far longer than his critics suspect.