The two-word epithet that sums up Boris Johnson’s economic legacy – “fuck business” – was delivered in June 2018 to Belgium’s ambassador to the EU during a reception at the Foreign Office. It was clearly intended to make its way into the wider world: the comment was first reported by the Brussels correspondent at the Telegraph, a position Johnson himself had held at a paper for which he still worked. It was aimed not at the Eurocrats in the room but at the millions of people around Britain who had themselves been shafted by globalisation, deregulation, corporate tax avoidance and the growth of the gig economy.
Johnson was right to reject the smug neoliberal assumptions that had benefited business so much at the expense of workers – but, as is his wont, he did so with his fingers crossed. Johnson’s government promised that a new commitment to global trade would “let the lion roar”: trade is widely accepted as a driver of productivity growth and real GDP. But the UK has become a much less trade-intensive economy since Johnson became Prime Minister; trade as a percentage of UK GDP has dropped by two and a half times the level of any other G7 country since 2019, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Jim O’Neill, the former chief economist for Goldman Sachs who was a Treasury minister while Johnson was mayor of London, describes Johnson’s economic legacy as “one of utter confusion. There is no real economic legacy” because “we have no idea what his real philosophical views are”. While Johnson “talks a good game about anything, in the moment”, the big projects and challenges of the UK economy, from regional inequality to the health service, require a belief in something.
“Without a different framework for economic policy, I’m not sure how he could deliver on much of what he says is important.”
On Brexit, too, O’Neill thinks it is likely that Johnson was a late and opportunistic convert to the Leave campaign. “His whole strategy on Brexit came not from any major philosophical belief – it was just what he wanted for himself.”
Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland and Butler to the World, says the one area in which Johnson upheld a consistent economic philosophy was pandering to the stateless rich. As mayor, Johnson wrote that London was the “natural habitat” of the billionaire. “As Prime Minister, he maintained that,” says Bullough, who sees Johnson’s obstruction of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report as typical of Johnson’s preference for political objectives over economic reality. The report, which Bullough calls “a considered approach to the need to defend our economy and society against kleptocratic wealth”, was delayed by Johnson until after the 2019 General Election and then dismissed as an attempt to delegitimise Brexit. “It wasn’t,” says Bullough. “It only mentioned Brexit twice.”
The pandemic was a huge economic challenge for every country and will remain so for years to come, but Bullough argues that the one economic position that Johnson can be said to have taken consistently – an easygoing and disorganised approach to financial crime – meant the UK “laid out a trough for fraudsters”. The hasty and mismanaged offering of Covid loans schemes “may have been the single biggest transfer of wealth from the government to criminals that there has ever been”.
Johnson’s government was prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to dust off the Economic Crime Bill, a version of which had originally been mooted in 2018, but Bullough says that because there are no additional resources to enforce them, new laws amount to “a tax on the good guys… there’s no downside to breaking the law, because you’re never going to get caught. There’s only a downside to complying with the law.” While Johnson has had limited time in office to deal with these issues, Bullough says, “he certainly hasn’t done anything to improve the situation.”
Not everyone sees Johnson’s tenure as an economic disaster. Gerard Lyons, who was Johnson’s chief economic advisor in City Hall, says Johnson was a powerful voice for investment in infrastructure in the capital, an advocate for the City who was adept at courting overseas investment. But Lyons says that Johnson, like other prime ministers, was unable to break the power struggle between No 10 and the Treasury, and this was perhaps because “when he became Prime Minister, Boris Johnson suffered from a lack of economic vision – not that he might not have had a vision, but that there was no economic vision set out as a template”.
Lyons – one of the only prominent British economists to support leaving the EU – puts this down to the opposition to Brexit. But a less charitable view would be that if anyone can be said to be responsible for the political and constitutional crises of recent years, it would be the politician behind the unseating of two prime ministers and the illegal prorogation of parliament: Boris Johnson.
To be fair to Johnson, he never really wanted to damage business. He would doubtless have preferred it if he could have somehow delivered a more balanced and productive economy, but he never cared enough about the details to make this happen. With no real philosophy of his own, Johnson created an unpredictable economy in which vital benefits such as Universal Credit and free school meals could be offered or withdrawn on the basis of how they played as headlines.
Johnson’s willingness to ignore or forget any inconvenient fact was eventually what caused his departure, but just as it affected the behaviour of his colleagues, this attitude spread out into the economy. In a country facing double-digit inflation, Johnson’s government sought to blame the Bank of England; as the UK entered the greatest energy crisis for a generation, Johnson and his ministers complained that the UK was importing too much electricity from France and said they would keep a list of petrol stations that didn’t pass on their derisory cut to fuel tax.
Johnson himself cannot be held responsible for all the problems facing the British economy. It is not only because of Brexit and political disruption that the UK has record lows in business confidence, record highs in credit card borrowing and 40 per cent of the population facing fuel poverty. But in the end, Brexit and political disruption were what he had to offer, and “fuck business”, that throwaway commitment to ignore the economy, was about the only promise he could keep.