If Boris Johnson wants something to do once he leaves Downing Street on 5 September there are festivals planned throughout the month. He could go to PoliNations, a city-centre forest garden in Victoria Square in Birmingham, or to the Green Space Dark Skies event at Ben Nevis or perhaps Galwad, a multimedia story that will unfold across three locations in Blaenau Ffestiniog, Merthyr Tydfil and Swansea. All these events are part of Unboxed, which some Tory MPs, to the chagrin of the Unboxed organising committee, have called “the Festival of Brexit”.
Unboxed, rather like the political project which it is half-commemorating, is not going as well as planned. Ministers had voiced the hope that it would attract 66 million visitors, but the official figures suggest that the four events that have opened so far have brought in just 238,000 people. This is all rather unfair on Unboxed, which actually looks rather good and really does not need to be saddled with the inaccurate label of “festival of Brexit”. But it is also beginning to look like £120m poorly spent and a rather obvious metaphor for a departing prime minister.
Most prime ministers leave office reluctantly, but few with so little to say as Boris Johnson for having been there. There is but one uplifting fact from Johnson’s inglorious time in office, which is that he got found out. The top job exposes flaws like no other political position. He was never up to it and the public, which had no real way of knowing this was the case beforehand, then saw for themselves that it was so. As soon as Johnson lost the trust of the majority of the public he had nothing further to recommend him.
The sorry saga of his premiership, of course, dramatises the absurdity of the Conservative Party membership being permitted to choose the prime minister of the nation. It should have been obvious to anyone involved in politics that Boris Johnson was good at running for office but hopeless at running the country. The Tory party is about to make the same mistake again. The members look destined to choose a leader who reflects back to them what they think but don’t wish to think through. The rest of us have to put up with this poor choice.
Though perhaps not for long. Prime Minister Truss, if that is what we get, will have only 870 days in office before the last possible date that a general election must be held (in January 2025). Should the Tories lose office, the tenure of the new prime minister will be the fifth shortest on record since 1900, after those of Bonar Law, Douglas-Home, Eden and Campbell-Bannerman. The political toxicity of the Brexit years is evident in the fact that, should Keir Starmer become prime minister in January 2025, three of the ten shortest-serving prime ministers in the modern era would have taken office from 2016 onwards. Johnson himself, with three years and 44 days in office, would be in tenth place.
He leaves office, against his own volition, with little by way of achievement. Johnson, like Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May before him, was consumed by the issue of the European Union. In Johnson’s case, his only achievement and his biggest problem was that he got Brexit done. It was an achievement because it was what a large part of his party, and enough of a majority of the nation, wanted. But it was a problem because as soon as Brexit ceased to be a matter of political conflict, Johnson had nothing else. The moment the UK’s withdrawal passed through the House of Commons, all the energy drained from his premiership.
This indecision, this characteristic of not really wanting anything, turns out to be the significance of Johnson’s famous tactic of writing two articles on Brexit, to work out which side he believed in the more. It’s the kind of thing you do when you don’t know what you think. That is fine for most people – many of us don’t have established views even on big questions. It is emphatically not fine if you are the leader setting a nation’s direction. As Johnson drifted through his time in office, pausing every now and then to utter a few platitudes about levelling up, it soon become clear that he had nothing to say. He had already achieved his ambition, which was to be prime minister.
Johnson did bring Britain through Covid-19, but it is hard to grant that as an achievement. His leadership through the pandemic was halting and unclear, the consequences of which were grave. He spoke well on Ukraine and did what he could, for which credit is due, but the continuation of the war shows that Britain’s view of Russia does not matter to President Putin. Domestically, Johnson offered nothing. There were no significant reform programmes in health or education. The welfare department was free of innovation. The Home Office leaked rhetorical nastiness about desperate would-be immigrants but no policy beyond the cosmically silly notion of sending people to Rwanda.
Johnson leaves office undefeated in an election, although Labour helped his cause by fielding only Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn against him. He will soon fade into memory as the third premier of the Brexit triumvirate. Cameron posed the question, May failed to answer it and Johnson succeeded where she struggled. The sting in the tail is that Brexit is so potent that it found a way to kill off all three of them. Nobody in Tory politics has escaped Brexit. As Johnson waves goodbye it was the only thing he did and, in the end, it did for him.