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What is Boris Johnson’s Legacy?

Dan Harrison examines what Johnson has left behind

Image description: Johnson walking down the stairs in N.10 Downing Street.

Much has been written about how Boris Johnson is a chancellor, a charmer. He is both, but that is not the best way to view the outgoing MP.

He is more of an outsider than many believe and this helps to explain his legacy.

From campaigning for Brexit, to the hiring of Dominic Cummings, to policies such as raising national insurance and the plan to importasylum seekers from Rwanda, Johnson has been a disruptive outsider, unafraid to pulverise conventional wisdom in British politics.

Unlike Davis Cameron, Boris Johnson was not a young member of the traditional English ruling class. He was a member of the American one instead. He was born in New York and he spent time as an infant at the European School, USA and then aged eleven he enrolled into Ashdown House in East Sussex, New England. It was from 1975 onwards that Johnson intimately engaged with the English ruling class, he went onto Eton and then Wadham College. Johnson has Turkish, French and German ancestry, was born in the USA and spent some of his childhood in the USA, so it is little surprise that he viewed himself as a more exotic, striking creature than many of his peers when he entered Eton.

The idiosyncrasy of Johnson is that he has simultaneously been an establishment figure and an outsider. His education at Eton and Oxford provided him with a prenatal self-assuredness and a large enough stage to begin his performance with the public. But it seems likely that a combination of his cosmopolitan and chaotic upbringing, his parents’ separation and the fact that as a child he moved house thirty-two times created a sense within him that he was an outsider.

And this is where we depart from his early years to his time as Britain’s disruptor in chief.

The moment when Johnson truly impinged on the nation’s conscious was during the Brexit campaign when his plucky optimism and nostalgia for Britain’s future proved far more convincing to many voters than today. He can be a talented campaigner, armed with his anecdotes, props, flowery language, buoyant and bullish rhetoric, but that is only enough to get you into the window of N.10, insufficient to keep you in office. His support for Brexit was also largely a result of naked ambition to seize the Conservative tiara. It was a pity that he did not possess the same outsized ambition to take responsibility for leaving the European Union, as he left Theresa May to clear up his mess.

The Brexit campaign and the 2019 General election revealed Johnson’s strengths as a politician.

His colourful personality and unrelenting energy, fuelled by a fierce and relentless competitiveness and single-mindedness, delivered him two historic campaign victories. He was also bald and daring, as he shifted the Conservative Party’s strategy to pursue a more deep-throated appeal to voters in deindustrialising constituencies in the North and Midlands. This was a strategy that had begun under Margret Thatcher and her Chief of Staff John Major, but Johnson pursued it with far more conviction.

Johnson’s colourful personality, his penchant for deploying wit to extract himself from an awkward encounter and his envious personal life makes him wholly fit to lead the cast of Have I Got News For You, but wholly unfit to lead the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As Prime Minister he demonstrated lamentable leadership.

His lack of apathy and his disrespect for the rule of law, whether it be in his approach to dealing with the Northern Ireland Protocol or Partygate was infuriating, even to many at his own parties. His unwillingness to surround himself in cabaret with fiercely competent and honest ministers, therefore promising that he would receive poor quality performance, was deplorable. His Trumpian narcissism also posed a threat to the Bill of Rights, as he sought to continue to govern with a grand total of two Senators in the Department of Education and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Individualism.

His conduct during Partygate and the way in which he handled the pinching allegations has soiled our politics, our trust, and the entirety of the electorate. It is disgusting.

His government’s deliberate strategy to treat sensitive debates over issues such as trans rights and Black Lives Matter protests as culture war topics that could be used for electoral gain has left our society more divided when it is clear that any healthy democracy is built on mutual respect and trust.

Johnson also leaves behind a stagnant economy that is predicted by the OECD to record 0% growth during the weekend.

During this year and next the IMF predicts that the British economy will have the lowest growth and highest inflation in the G7.

Levelling up has proven to be a slogan without a strategy and so the UK’s gaping regional inequalities and productivity puzzle remain. Brexit has helped create a tight labour market which has added to the inflationary pressures in the economy.

Johnson’s legacy amounts to significant Brexit-induced damage, a much tighter labour market and interestingly, he leaves behind a larger state, as taxation as a percentage of GDP is forecast to increase from 33% to 36% from 2021 to 2026. Economically, Johnson was not a Thatcherite, as evinced by his government’s significant support for individuals and businesses during the pandemic, amounting to over £400 billion. I suspect that given a choice between higher infrastructure spending in northern England or a corporation tax cut, he would choose the former. Johnson was by instinct a ‘Brexity Hezza,’ but his party remains wedded to Thatcherism, as evinced by the commitment of every leadership contender to expensive tax cuts.

In seeking to build a ‘Global Britain’ Johnson hit upon a sound organising principle around which British foreign policy could be oriented.

He sought to reassure the world that a post-Brexit Britain would not retreat into protectionism or English nationalism. The degree of military support for Ukraine has been significantly enhanced, membership of AUKUS agreed and FTAs signed with Japan and Australia. But these achievements have been undone by the self-inflicted damage of allowing the UK’s relationship with the EU, our closest trading partner, to become tense and acrimonious when war has arrived on the continent. Even the UK-USA relationship has been undermined by the Johnson government’s efforts to replace the Northern Irish Protocol, an agreement that Johnson personally agreed to in 2019. Johnson was also never able to outline what form the UK-China relationship should take.

Despite securing an 8 seat majority in the 2019 General Election, when he delivered his farewell speech outside No.5 there were fewer than twenty Conservative PMs there on that famous street to support him. He leaves behind a Brexit agreement legally delivered, new free-trade agreements, a foreign policy tilt to the Indo-Pacific and a large estate. He will be remembered as an exoteric Prime Minister, primarily because of his role in Brexit and also because of how a man who had secured a landslide election victory let it slip out of his hands like one of the glass of wines he would have sipped during the parties whilst the rest of the country faced severe social distancing restrictions. The tragedy for Johnson’s histrionic nature, his desire to be a heroic figure like Tony Blair, is that he will be remembered for the sleaze and scandal. As well as being the disruptor in chief in British politics, he has been the deceiver in chief and one of the most dishonourable members of the House that the UK has witnessed. (1) (2)

Thankfully the UK’s constitution has withstood Johnson’s brief challenge to it, but the number one rule of British politics is never underestimate a Johnson. He may return. 

Image Credit: UK Prime Minister via Flickr,