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8 July 2022

Boris Johnson’s poisonous legacy

Just as Trump degraded the US, Johnsonism is a virus that has seriously weakened British politics. Here’s how we can recover.

By Jonathan Powell

British politics usually follows the pattern of US politics, but a few years in arrears. The US is now suffering from “Long Trump” (like long Covid, but worse). The original virus passed in 2020 but the consequences linger, from the overturning of Roe vs Wade to the seething anger in Republican states. The question is whether the departure of our own mini-Trump will leave us with “Long Johnson”.

Certainly Boris Johnson’s departure mirrored that of Donald Trump. Like his US counterpart, the Prime Minister clung on to power, refusing to accept that his time had come and living in an alternative reality rather than listening to his cabinet colleagues. When it came to the crunch, Trump rallied his supporters to occupy the Capitol. Johnson, lacking supporters, has occupied Downing Street by himself, and no one can count on him departing until he is actually out the door.

When it comes to legacy, Johnson posed a threat to our democratic system and to our standing in the world by his refusal to abide by the rules when they stood in the way of his personal gratification, just as Trump did in the US. He has seriously undermined the independence of the civil service, the ethical basis of our politics and the reputation of our politicians, our relations with our neighbours, respect for our independent judges, and the rules and conventions that have protected us from autocracy for generations. He has compromised the very existence of the United Kingdom itself.

Will Johnson’s legacy continue to poison the integrity of our politics and its institutions once he has gone? The good news is that our system is different to America’s – we do not have the separation of powers and rigidities imposed by the constitution that make it hard for Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, to reverse all that he did. But exactly because our constitutional protections are fluid and unwritten, once they have been breached by one prime minister it will be hard to prevent the next populist that comes along from doing so too.

The only way to protect ourselves from “Long Johnson” – apart from removing him from Downing Street as fast as possible so he can’t do more harm on the way out – is for his successor to reinforce those protections to make sure that a similar calamity cannot befall us again. First, the new prime minister has to set a new tone from the top. They should make it clear that anyone who deliberately lies to the public or to parliament will go and go immediately. They should appoint a genuinely independent ethics adviser with the right to initiate investigations and report to parliament, not the prime minister. The PM’s immediate task will be to restore faith in our political system and our politicians.

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Second, we have to accept that the “good chap theory” of British government has been fatally damaged. We can no longer rely on the innate good sense and good intentions of those who run the system. Opting for a full written constitution is probably a step too far, but we are going to have to write down the key rules and conventions and make them justiciable. The new PM should appoint a commission to suggest how this should be done.

Third, we need to protect the independence of the civil service, which has been cowed over the last three years. Those at the top – very few – who collaborated with the Johnson regime should go and the code must be strengthened so that civil servants can stand up to the sort of bullying they have received from ministers.

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Fourth, the new leader needs to rebuild our relations with our neighbours in the EU, particularly Ireland. They should return to the negotiating table on the Norther Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement, drop the preposterous bill now on its way to the House of Lords that would unilaterally scrap the protocol, and try to rebuild the trust necessary with the EU to get to a satisfactory outcome for everyone in Northern Ireland. And they should propose new negotiations on a security and foreign policy pact with Europe. We are not going to pivot to the Indo-Pacific or anywhere else, or be a “Global Britain”, unless we have a secure base in our neighbourhood.

Fifth, it should be a priority to take a step back from Johnson’s catastrophic approach that risked the break-up of the United Kingdom, losing Scotland and Northern Ireland. Instead of trying to impose unilateral vetoes and high-handedly governing as if the nations didn’t exist, we need a PM who tries to rebuild relations and strengthen the Union.

Most of all we need a serious PM with a sense of direction for the country rather than one who is obsessed with himself. The key problem with our government is its inability to take a long-term approach. If we are to address the challenges facing us, from the social care and housing crises to AI and automation eating jobs, from the threat of global warming to our collapsing balance of trade and dire productivity, we need a PM who, instead of trying to score points, can build bipartisan support for long-term measures that will not be reversed in a few years time.

That is asking a lot of whoever is chosen from the tens of Tory candidates struggling to replace Johnson, and if they can’t deliver we will have to await a Labour government. We should celebrate that two narcissists – Trump and Johnson – have been defeated, but let’s hope the story diverges there and we get a leader who is ready to suck the poison administered by Johnson out of the system, and who has the integrity to rebuild trust, the currency of politics. If we do not get such a leader, we face the same enduring sickness in our body politic that the US suffers from. If we do, Johnson will quickly become a mere footnote in history, remembered as the person in charge when Brexit and Covid happened but for nothing else other than the manner of his leaving office.

Democracies are self-regulating. They heal. In the Discourses, Machiavelli says that in 400 years the electors in the Roman Republican only made a couple of mistakes. Johnson was ours.

Jonathan Powell was Downing Street chief of staff from 1997-2007

[See also: How Boris Johnson authored his own Greek tragedy]