Boris Johnson said his tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was “mission largely accomplished”. How does this self-diagnosed legacy stack up?
Nothing is inevitable in politics, but Johnson’s political demise in July 2022 might be as close to such inevitability as it gets. It wasn’t so much because of the mounting pressure to oust him once the revelations of his misdeeds occurred.
Rather, it is because of the well-known character flaws of chaotic self-management and blatant disregard for responsibility that he brought to the post of prime minister.
Read more: Why is Boris Johnson still UK Prime Minister and how could he be replaced?
Nonetheless, he left an important political legacy for whoever succeeded him, and for the UK as a whole. This is not to say that his legacy was part of a coherent ideology or government strategy.
Compare Johnson with Margaret Thatcher who, though reviled by the political left, was credited with having an elaborate plan and actually implementing it. Conversely, Tony Blair had an electoral strategy and was feared by the right for more than a decade for winning the Tories’ political middle ground (although many Labor voters never really forgave Blair to have ousted the party).
So what is Johnson’s legacy?
It’s hard to see any order in Johnson’s chaos. Johnson was seen as a fixer, a prime minister who ruled through and through crises. The list of his main legacies will run as follows.
Mission largely accomplished 1: Brexit and UK unity
Johnson will be best remembered for getting Brexit done. However, this is not entirely accurate. Brexit is not done yet, certainly not in Northern Ireland. The statecraft needed to get the UK out of the European Union focused on political concerns in England and paid little heed to the parts of the UK that had voted to stay.
The push for Scottish independence has entered a new phase, with the Scottish government sending its plans for a referendum on separation from the UK in 2023 to the UK High Court.
Mission largely accomplished 2: upgrade
The flip side of Brexit was the “race to the top”. It was a plan to reinvest in relatively deprived areas of northern and central England that had voted to leave the EU.
There have been many plans to overcome the north-south divide in England; none really achieved their stated goals. The cancellation of the Leeds branch of a high-speed rail project doesn’t look like a promising departure from the norm.
Mission largely accomplished 3: Pandemic response and economy
Of course, it may be too soon to tell how successful Brexit really was. Its medium and long-term effects are not yet apparent.
This is particularly evident when it comes to the economy, which was hit by the pandemic just weeks after the UK officially left the EU in January 2020. The predicted “Brexit opportunities” certainly did not materialize. presented to fishermen who were a key source of support for the “leave” campaign in 2016.
Although Johnson is often credited with making the big decisions on the pandemic response, his record is checked here before we even get to party portal. His initial avoidance of emergency meetings demonstrated his disregard for process and his avoidance of responsibility.
Read more: Four key takeaways from Boris Johnson’s Downing Street ‘partygate’ inquiry
Mission (actually) accomplished: lack of trust in politics
What Johnson may have fully accomplished is destroying trust in politics. His greatest legacy will take time to become apparent. At the electoral level, Brexit was built on the support of those who had lost faith in the ability of politics and politicians to change their lives for the better (see above about Tony Blair).
Johnson squandered the trust these people placed in him with his disregard for the responsibilities that come with being prime minister and his lack of empathy for the plight of others he so obviously wished to govern.
Who are the candidates to replace him?
We have arrived at the final two candidates who will face a vote from grassroots party members in August: former Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasurer) Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
With his high-tax policies, Sunak is what passes for a liberal among conservatives. This can weaken his chances against Truss. Truss poses as the sequel candidate.
Around 160,000 members of the Conservative Party will choose the new British Prime Minister by the start of September.
This is where the legacy of former Prime Minister David Cameron, rather than that of Boris Johnson, came to fruition. In 2010, Tories were often portrayed as stale, pale and masculine. Cameron selected women and ethnic minority candidates for safe seats (compare with the Australian Coalition’s struggles with quotas). These decisions are now paying off as the next prime minister will either be a woman or the UK’s first non-white prime minister.
As Enoch Powell wrote, “All political lives, unless interrupted in the process at a happy moment, end in failure.” Johnson’s political demise can hardly be described as coming at a happy time.
However, despite all his faults, Johnson bequeathed to his successor a healthy parliamentary majority; down from 80 in 2019, but still a very strong 73. Even with a huge gap to the Tories, the Labor opposition – which has ruled out a coalition with the Scottish National Party – still has a proverbial mountain to climb. The Tories could be dining on Brexit and Johnson’s only election victory for a few years to come.
Johnson signed his Prime Minister’s Last Questions in the House of Commons quoting The Terminator: “Hasta la vista, baby.” His term as Prime Minister is over; but for a born great stander like Johnson, we can be sure he will be back.