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29 August 2022

Don’t fall for the revisionism – Boris Johnson was a catastrophe for Britain

In three years he almost destroyed the country. Could the Conservatives really be mad or desperate enough to give this man another chance to finish the job?

By Martin Fletcher

A week to go, and the most destructive, divisive and dishonest prime minister in modern British history will finally be gone. Or will he?

Already the revisionism is well under way. Boris Johnson triggered it the day he announced his resignation on the steps of No 10, referring to his “incredible mandate” from the British people and the treachery of the Westminster “herd” who had deposed him. 

Nadine Dorries, Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Johnson sycophants followed his lead, claiming he had been the victim of an undemocratic coup. The right-wing tabloids took up the theme. A recent YouGov poll showed Conservative Party members still prefer Johnson to either of his would-be successors. Nearly 9,000 have signed a petition demanding a vote on whether he should have been forced to resign. The Sunday Times reports that many voters are now suffering “seller’s remorse”. Rory Stewart, the former Conservative minister, warns in a Guardian interview that Johnson will be like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, “hovering around, hoping for a populist return”.  

Johnson is a supremely artful crafter of mendacious narratives. As the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent in the early 1990s, he did as much as anyone to create the potent myth about lonely Britain fighting a desperate rearguard action against a scheming European Union bent on destroying our traditional way of life (the truth is that we were a big powerful member state with many allies). In 2019 he succeeded brilliantly in portraying himself as a champion of the Brexit-voting masses defending the “will of the people” against the wicked “metropolitan elite”.

Now he will sit on the backbenches – posing as the country’s unjustly deposed leader, biding his time as Liz Truss’s premiership is destroyed by the dire consequences of his own misgovernment, once again evading the blame and using his undoubted charisma to hog the limelight. As Stewart says, this is “dangerous” stuff and “we need to remind people why he left… What he did was deeply, deeply shameful.” 

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Let me seek to oblige, lest the nation does indeed succumb to collective amnesia. Just a few weeks ago Johnson became the first British prime minister forced to resign in disgrace, after more than 40 members of his own government and scores of Tory backbenchers demanded he step down. His approval rating in the country as a whole was a staggering minus 48. His party had lost three seats in by-elections. He was universally reviled and ridiculed, and with good reason: his three years in power have been catastrophic for Britain.

[See also: How Boris Johnson got found out]

Yes, Johnson won a “stonking” majority in 2019, but he was running against a cartoon caricature of the loony left in Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, he “got Brexit done”, but only by betraying Northern Ireland, sundering the United Kingdom and gravely damaging our relations with Europe and the US. His promised trade deal with the US has never transpired, incidentally. Nor has his “bonfire of red tape”.

Yes, he has robustly and rightly supported Ukraine following Putin’s invasion. And yes, he gambled with taxpayers’ money to develop a Covid vaccine – and won. But he reacted lamentably slowly to the pandemic, allowed it to spread to care homes, squandered tens of billions of pounds on useless or fraudulent PPE contracts and still presided over 202,000 Covid-related deaths.

He promised that post-Brexit Britain would “take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth” and emerge with its “cloak flowing” – but on his watch it has succumbed to the highest inflation in 40 years, the sharpest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s, the heaviest tax burden since the 1940s and record debt.

He promised “levelling up” which is a laudable aim, but under his leadership the gap between rich and poor, north and south, blue- and white-collar workers, has actually widened dramatically. According to YouGov, more than two thirds of voters now regard the Conservatives as “not close” or “not close at all” to the working class.

It is hard to think of a single public service that has not deteriorated sharply during Johnson’s rule. He promised 40 new hospitals and an additional £350 million a week for the NHS, but the health service is now perilously close to collapse – as is the judicial system. He promised to solve the social care crisis “once and for all”, but it is more acute than ever. He promised to “make your streets safer”, but the police now solve barely 4 per cent of thefts and 7 per cent of burglaries. He promised to make Britain the “cleanest, greenest” country in the world, but our rivers and seas grow rank with untreated sewage. He promised to “take back control” of our borders, but asylum seekers arrive in ever greater numbers.

It has become almost impossibly hard to get ambulances, GP appointments, passports or driving licences. Travelling has become a nightmare. Our railway workers, postal workers, barristers and dockers are on strike, with doctors, teachers and civil servants threatening to follow suit. For millions of Britons basics like gas and electricity are rapidly becoming unaffordable.

Much of the above can be attributed to Covid and the Ukraine war, of course, but Britain’s moral decline over the past three years is almost entirely Johnson’s responsibility. 

The man who promised to “restore trust in democracy” is the first prime minister in living memory who has actively stoked social division for political gain; the first to receive a sanction for breaking the law while in office; the first to lose not one, but two, ethical advisers; the first to put his personal ambition before the good of the country, and to make his government’s raison d’être a policy (Brexit) which he surely knows to be deeply damaging to the national interest. Through Brexit he also unleashed the worst instincts of many people in Britain – their latent xenophobia, jingoism and arrogance. 

The charge sheet continues. Johnson has knowingly breached international and domestic law. He has trashed the ministerial code. He has routinely lied to parliament and the country. He has regularly rewarded cronies with jobs, peerages and lucrative contracts. He has sought to restrict the right to vote and protest, and to neuter any institution that he could not control. He betrayed millions of vulnerable Afghans through “Global” Britain’s shameful withdrawal. Equally shamefully, he has approved the deportation of desperate asylum seekers to one of Africa’s nastiest regimes. 

He is guilty of sins of omission as well as commission. He has governed through hollow promises, empty rhetoric and naked gimmickry while neglecting the hard graft of government. He has failed to prepare Britain for future crises – be they pandemics, energy shortages or rampant inflation. For the last six weeks he has gone almost entirely awol.

In his final Prime Minister’s Question Johnson declared: “Mission largely accomplished.” If he was referring to the destruction of Britain, he was quite right. Would the Conservatives really be mad, or desperate, enough to give this man another chance to finish the job? 

[See also: Can the Tories kick their addiction to delusional thinking?]

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