To ask how history will judge Boris Johnson, as so many journalists and commentators have done, is both foolish and unanswerable. History doesn’t judge, it analyses and explains – and we historians are in any case an argumentative bunch who hardly ever agree about anything.
Johnson will continue to have his defenders as well as his detractors for decades to come. Yet many of the arguments advanced in his favour don’t hold water. He may have been unlucky in having had to confront multiple crises, but this is the lot of almost all national leaders – when asked by a journalist what was the main challenge confronting statesmen, Harold Macmillan, prime minister from 1957 to 1963, is famously supposed to have replied: “Events, dear boy, events.” Of the three major events Johnson has had to deal with, he mishandled Covid, and Brexit was a crisis of his own making. As for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Britain’s support for the Ukrainians has been no stronger than it would have been under any other leader (except of course for Jeremy Corbyn).
Can one think of any previous British prime minister whose record has been as dismal as Johnson’s? Certainly there have been plenty of corruption scandals in British history: Professor Mark Knights, of Warwick University, has recently written a 512-page book about them and he only got as far as 1850. In modern times, the list of government ministers who have been forced to resign because of financial or sexual misdemeanours is a long one, and includes politicians of all parties, from Peter Mandelson to Liam Fox. The difference is that Johnson has brazened out scandals that any other politician would have had the decency to admit damaged their office and required them to relinquish it.
There have been plenty of prime ministers who have held office for a shorter time than the three years Boris Johnson has spent at No 10, from John Stuart, the Third Earl of Bute, prime minister for less than a year in 1762-63, to Ramsay MacDonald (his first term in 1924 was nine months), but most were ousted because of policy failures (including, for example, Anthony Eden over the 1956 Suez Crisis), changing party alignments or lost elections. Johnson is virtually unique in being ousted by his own party as a result of his own character failings, his lies and his botched cover-ups. Worse, his misbehaviour has infected the entire Conservative parliamentary party and done profound damage to British political culture and Britain’s reputation across the world.
As Boris Johnson embarks on his long goodbye, he leaves behind him a government in paralysis, an economy in crisis, a constitution in tatters, a culture at war with itself, and a country that has become the laughing stock of the world. With the Prime Minister refusing to leave office until a replacement is chosen, and dozens of ministers either entirely new to their job, or hamstrung by public declarations of no confidence in their current leader, or facing potential dismissal by his successor, it’s no wonder the parliamentary Conservative Party is moving quickly to hold a leadership election.
Almost all the candidates for the hopefully soon-to-become vacant post of prime minister have been tainted by their association with Johnson. They knew from the outset that he was a serial liar, without integrity or decency, untrustworthy and unworthy of respect. Even Johnson’s classics teacher at Eton noted in 1982 that he apparently thought he should be free of the “network of obligation that binds everyone”. As a journalist, before he entered politics, Johnson was fired by the Times for falsifying a quote. After entering parliament, he was sacked by the then-Tory leader Michael Howard for lying about his own personal life. His editor at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, said that Johnson “would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade”.
He lied, lied and lied again about the Downing Street parties that were held in defiance of Covid lockdown rules his own government had imposed. The contempt shown to the general public by the partygoers was breathtaking. Among those issued with fixed-penalty notices for breaking Covid restrictions was Rishi Sunak, now the front-runner to succeed Johnson. This doesn’t seem to have inflicted any serious damage on his chances of winning the support of Tory MPs, to the party’s shame. Johnson’s corrupt and irresponsible behaviour has spread across the Tory Party like a leprous sore.
It was Johnson’s mendacity that finally brought him down. When confronted with evidence of sexual misconduct by Christopher Pincher, a deputy chief whip appointed by Johnson, the Prime Minister first tried to bat away the allegations with a joke (“Pincher by name, Pincher by nature,” he is supposed to have said), then seemed to lie about his knowledge of Pincher’s behaviour in an attempt to bury the story. For most, it was the last straw.
Deeply flawed though his character is, Johnson is far from solely responsible for the appalling mess in which we currently find ourselves. As he has fashioned his political persona, he has absorbed the characteristics of the populism that has swept across the globe in the past decade or so, evident in the behaviour of leaders such as Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Appealing to “the people” over the heads of the political establishment, populists claim to be directly implementing the will of the people by ignoring the rules and conventions of the constitution. It’s not surprising that as he tried to defend himself in the days before his resignation, Johnson repeatedly referred to the “14 million” people who had given him a “colossal mandate” to govern the country. But Johnson hadn’t been given a colossal mandate – the Conservative Party had. His own personal mandate consisted of some 25,000 votes in his constituency, Uxbridge and South Ruislip. The UK is not a presidential system – at least, not yet.
It’s this kind of exaggerated, populist self-belief that enabled Johnson to attempt what turned out to be an illegal prorogation of parliament in order to get the Brexit bill through in 2019, or to plan to break the law by unilaterally ditching an international agreement he himself had signed, as he did earlier this year with the Northern Ireland protocol – the post-Brexit trade border between Britain and the island of Ireland. And yet Tory MPs, along with Johnson’s friends and allies, went along with all this. Populists often rely on mainstream politicians to get their way.
Among the many obvious features of populism in power are its cronyism and corruption. During the Covid pandemic, Johnson’s government awarded contracts to businesses run by Tory donors and bypassed proper procedures and safeguards, with the result that millions of pounds were wasted on equipment that turned out to be unusable. When a favoured Tory MP, Owen Paterson, was found to have been in breach of parliamentary lobbying regulations in 2021, Johnson’s immediate reaction was to try to change the regulations, not to censure the MP. Two successive senior advisers on ministers’ standards of conduct resigned because Johnson refused to accept their advice. In June this year, reports emerged alleging that he had tried unsuccessfully to get his then girlfriend, now wife, Carrie Symonds a highly paid job in the Foreign Office while he was the foreign secretary. Further allegations in a similar mould are now emerging.
Populists are prepared to launch outright assaults on the institutions that place limits on their power, such as, in Johnson’s case, the Supreme Court. They display a disturbing lack of tolerance for views that diverge from their own. Johnson’s administration has manufactured phoney “culture wars” in which it has dismissed as “woke” or “Marxist” policies developed by the leadership of the National Trust, Kew Gardens or the National Maritime Museum. The established way of doing things is for the government to deal with such organisations “at arm’s length”, leaving them to get on with the job and refraining from interfering. But as the then-culture secretary, later co-chair of the Conservative Party, Oliver Dowden, declared in a letter to English museums: “I would expect arm’s-length bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the government’s position.” No longer arm’s length, then.
Threatening to defund the National Trust’s Colonial Countryside project, which investigated country houses’ links with slavery, Dowden was only one of a number of Johnson’s ministers who were intent on waging war on institutions that brought to light uncomfortable aspects of Britain’s colonial past. People who were even mildly critical of British imperialism were rejected as trustees or board members. Tory party donors were appointed to key jobs in the culture and media sector. And the government is proposing to privatise the public service broadcaster Channel 4 because, in essence, it dislikes its news programmes. Depressingly, many of the politicians who aspire to succeed Johnson have vowed to continue with his “culture wars” or even intensify them, a huge diversion from the real problems facing the country.
Perhaps the greatest challenge that Johnson has posed to British democracy is to the rights of poor and disadvantaged voters, overwhelmingly Labour Party supporters, who are unlikely to possess the photographic identity documents that the government proposes voters require before they can be admitted to the polls. It’s no wonder the Electoral Reform Society has condemned this policy as a threat to voters’ democratic rights. Almost as bad has been his Public Order Bill, which proposes severe limits on the right of public protest. Even being too noisy or causing “serious annoyance” will be criminalised. Restrictions on the police’s stop-and-search powers are being removed. Talk of an emerging “police state” is not so far off the mark.
Johnson was popular with Tory MPs and with Conservative Party members because he seemed to be an effective campaigner. He led a successful campaign for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, not least by misleading voters – that leaving the EU would bring £350m to the NHS, that major trade deals would be signed with partners across the globe, that the border with Northern Ireland would be “absolutely unchanged”, that new trade agreements with the EU would ensure the flow of goods unhindered by bureaucratic restrictions, and so on. His claim that he “got Brexit done” was, and is, bogus: none of these things have come to pass.
The Conservative Party has gone along with all of this, partly because it believes that Johnson won it a massive majority in the 2019 general election. The real reason for its victory, however, was not Johnson’s leadership but the fact that his major opponent in the campaign was the politically incompetent opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose far-left views, seemingly pro-Russian stance – evident in his non-committal reaction to the poisoning of the Russian exile Sergei Skripal in Salisbury – failure to deal with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and inability to sing the national anthem were unacceptable to millions of voters. Johnson’s supporters still claim that he “got the big calls right”, but the extreme Brexit he fought for has been an economic disaster, leading to a 10 per cent devaluation of the pound and massive disruption to British trade with the EU. Johnson’s callous complacency in the early months of the Covid pandemic resulted in thousands of avoidable deaths. The absurd and inhumane policy of deporting illegal would-be asylum seekers to Rwanda has failed dismally: undeterred by the threat, more are arriving in the UK than ever.
Populist leaders in politics rarely turn out to be competent when they come to power, and Johnson has been no exception. Passionately interested in acquiring power for himself, he has virtually no idea how to use it. Frivolous, capricious and inconsistent in his negotiating stance, he was rapidly shut out from serious discussions on Brexit with his EU partners. In his new cabinet, second division ministers have been replaced by third. Throughout his brief premiership he has, like Trump, put loyalty above competence in his ministerial appointments. The sight of Andrea Jenkyns, newly appointed as an education minister, raising her middle finger to the crowd gathered outside Downing Street is an indication of just how far the behavioural standards of government ministers have sunk.
Over the years, and particularly in his 2014 book The Churchill Factor, Johnson has tried to portray himself as a worthy successor to Winston Churchill, but while Churchill was a serious historian and biographer, Johnson’s constantly flippant tone, frequently misconceived judgements and repeated historical errors made it impossible to take the book seriously. I was not the only reviewer to compare reading it to being cornered in the Drones Club and harangued endlessly by Bertie Wooster, but my comparison led to complaints from readers who accused me of being unfair to Bertie Wooster.
For all his faults and errors of judgement, Churchill was an inspirational figure who successfully led Britain through the most dangerous war in its modern history. Johnson’s utterly implausible suggestion that he is the Churchill of the early 21st-century just serves to illustrate his own inflated opinion of himself. Comparing the Covid-19 pandemic to a world war was a grotesque misreading of the experience, which had nothing in common with a desperate fight against a human enemy who threatened to enslave the British people, destroy their institutions and send the Jewish population of the UK to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Johnson may declare his belief in the long outdated “great man” theory of history, but “great” is the last word you’d be justified in applying to him.
The tragedy is that whoever replaces Johnson will inevitably be someone who tolerated his mendacity, corruption and incompetence for years, and is unlikely to undertake the radical measures needed to restore our economy, political culture and moral standing quickly or effectively. The mess Boris Johnson has left behind will take a long time to clear up.