Boris Johnson: An obituary

I was wrong, very wrong.

Right up to May 2019, I was absolutely convinced that Boris Johnson would never get to be leader of the Conservative Party. He was clearly a man of extraordinary talent, but also one so deeply flawed that his colleagues surely wouldn’t allow him to be promoted to the top job. We all knew that he wasn’t up to it, that he lacked focus and paid little or no attention to detail, and we knew that Tory MPs – who’d seen him up close – had even less confidence in him than we did.

But things were looking pretty desperate in 2019. The party needed a winner, someone who could campaign in poetry. The governing in prose would have to wait for a bit.

And Johnson’s approach to politics has always been about winning. He backed Ken Clarke for Conservative leader in 2001 and David Cameron in 2005 because he believed – correctly – that they would be more likely to beat Labour than would their rivals, Iain Duncan Smith and David Davies respectively. He was more about instinct than ideology. In other words, he was a Tory.

His own victory in the London mayoral race in 2008 was genuinely impressive. London was not then a Conservative city (still less so now), and although the incumbent, Ken Livingstone, was looking a bit past his sell-by date, he retained a strong following: indeed, he increased his first-preference votes by over 200,000 that year. But Johnson swept past him, the first British politician ever to get more than a million votes. And in 2012, he repeated the performance.

In office, he might not have done very much, but then there was very little to do. The London mayoralty is not a job that comes with much power, except over public transport, and on that he had a mixed record. On the one hand, he got rid of the appalling ‘bendy buses’ that Livingstone had introduced; on the other, he replaced them with a badly designed vehicle that was intended to evoke the Routemaster of blessed memory – an ersatz exercise in nostalgia that didn’t live up to the hype. Mostly, people didn’t notice the difference in regime.

Then came the 2016 referendum and again his campaigning was highly effective. Most of the heavy lifting had already been done by Nigel Farage, but the Leave vote wouldn’t have got over the line without Johnson’s contribution.

By now he was back in Parliament and, although no one wanted him to have control of a spending department, the new prime minister, Theresa May, made him foreign secretary. He lasted a year, which was long enough for civil servants to complain that he was the laziest secretary of state they’d known. Again though, as with the London mayor, the foreign secretary isn’t someone who has much direct impact on British people. It didn’t matter a great deal.

What did matter was that Parliament was in a state of paralysis. May’s minority administration proved incapable of commanding a majority on Brexit, losing a series of votes between January and March 2019, on one occasion by a margin of 230 votes, the biggest defeat ever suffered by a British government. Nearly three years on from the referendum, Parliament still hadn’t delivered on the people’s instruction to get out of the European Union, and many who’d voted to leave were getting impatient.

One unintended consequence of the lack of progress was that Britain was still in the EU when the next set of elections to the European Parliament came round in May 2019. And that’s when the impatience came spilling out.

In that election, the Tories finished in fifth place with just 8.8 per cent of the vote, which meant that the incumbent government could attract the support of just 3.3 per cent of the electorate. They were beaten by – in ascending order – the Greens, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party. It was the last that really counted. Nigel Farage had launched his new party just seven months earlier, and here he was winning a national election with 30.5 per cent of the vote, more than his previous vehicle, UKIP, had managed when winning last time round in 2014. (UKIP did field candidates in 2019, but were reduced to 3.2 per cent, a whisker below Change UK.)

Even before the votes were counted, Theresa May had announced her resignation, her position undermined by massive dissatisfaction in Tory ranks. When the counting was completed, the enormity of the loss ensured the triumph of Boris Johnson in the coming leadership contest. The party’s enemy now was very clearly Farage, the most brilliant campaigner of his generation, and Johnson was the only Tory who stood a chance of spiking his guns.

In the last ballot of MPs, despite all the reservations of most of those who knew him, he got over half the votes, leaving Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove to fight for the remainder. And then he beat Hunt by a margin of two-to-one in the membership vote.

There was one more victory to come, the most spectacular of them all. In December 2019 Johnson led the Conservative Party to a general election triumph on a scale that few had predicted.

In what became a single-issue campaign, Johnson made Brexit his own, completely sidelining Farage. The Brexit Party did field 275 candidates but made no impression, getting barely half as many votes as the Scottish National Party (and no seats, compared to the SNP’s 48). Meanwhile the rump UKIP, now under the interim leadership of Patricia Mountain (no, me neither), put up 44 candidates, and really shouldn’t have bothered.

Johnson was of course helped by the Labour Party choosing to shoot itself in the left foot, by having as its leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was never going to be prime minister. And then shooting itself in the right foot by adopting the electorally stupid policy promoted by Keir Starmer of staging a re-run of the referendum. Having Jo Swinson as the Lib Dem leader didn’t exactly pose a threat either.

It’s also worth noting that Johnson inherited a strong electoral position. Although Theresa May fell short in 2017, it really wasn’t by much. In many places it wasn’t one last heave that was needed, so much as a gentle nudge. To take a couple of examples: in Tony Blair’s great victory of 1997, Labour won Ashfield in Nottinghamshire with a margin of 44 per cent; May reduced that to 1 per cent, and then in 2019 it became a Tory majority of 12 per cent. Bishop Auckland in County Durham told the same story: Labour’s margin of 46 per cent in 1997 falling to 1 per cent under May, and then converted by Johnson to an 18-point Conservative lead.

Those were particularly marginal cases, but they illustrate the point: Johnson was building on foundations that had been laid by others. This was the sixth general election in succession that the Tories had increased their share of the vote.

Nonetheless, Johnson’s success was remarkable. Jeremy Hunt would not have achieved this, and although a majority would have been likely under Michael Gove, it wouldn’t have been anything like as substantial. Johnson really was a very good campaigner.

As prime minister, however… well, you know the rest. And if you’re like most people (which, of course, you’re not, you’re reasonable and fair-minded – I’m talking about the others), your estimation of Boris Johnson is shaped almost entirely by your original attitude towards Brexit. Particularly if you were opposed to it.

In his short premiership, the policy agenda was dominated entirely by the unholy trinity of Brexit, Covid, Ukraine. His instincts were broadly sound, but on those first two items particularly, where detail was of the essence, he was horribly exposed by his wandering attention. He surrounded himself with a singularly unimpressive cabinet and, without competent colleagues around him, there was no one to pick up the slack. There was a good deal of slack.

Politically, the problem was that, despite the enormity of the challenges, he was always the story. He was the noisiest prime minister of modern times. That was part of the fun, of course, but it got very wearing after a while.

The beginning of the end was the incompetent (at best) response to the Owen Paterson story last autumn, when Johnson gave the impression of rewriting the rules for his mates. And then the trigger for his resignation in July this year (can it really be that recent? It seems like an age ago) was his handling of the scandal over Chris Pincher. That prompted the resignation from cabinet of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, followed by nearly 30 other ministers, who made up in numbers what they lacked in public recognition. (Gove, the one with the highest profile, was sacked minutes before his scheduled resignation.) But of course it wasn’t about Pincher at all, let alone concern for his alleged victims. You could tell that by the fact that the story was instantly discarded once Johnson had said he’d step down.

Really it was about Johnson, about the lingering bitterness over Brexit, and, above all, about the continuing bad polls that set in with the long, tedious saga of Partygate.

And perhaps that was as it should be. Because prime ministers tend to be broken by the same things that made them in the first place. Margaret Thatcher was the voice of the respectable suburbs until she became enamoured of the world stage and forgot her roots. Tony Blair was a pretty straight kind of guy until the country decided he’d lied in order to go to war. Gordon Brown cared about equality and could be trusted with the economy; then the banking crash and the ensuing recession destroyed that image. 

Boris Johnson’s greatest selling point was that he was the roast-beef-and-real-ale Englishman, the laughing cavalier up against the po-faced puritans, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer. So, partying in itself wasn’t a bad thing. It was what we expected – and what much of the country wanted – of him. But not in the context of Covid, not at a time when he was going against type and urging the rest of us to exercise restraint. After nearly two years of tightening our social – even our moral – belts, we weren’t quite so keen on big, bluff, boisterous Boris anymore. We could overlook a bit of financial skulduggery, but it was no time for quaffing wine. We were feeling more serious now, and it was all, as Nick Robinson put it on Radio 4’s Today show, ‘inappropriate’. And there are few sins greater than that.

Boris Johnson is now 58. The media continue to speculate that he hasn’t given up on the possibility of making a political comeback, but I don’t believe it and, I suspect, neither does he. British politics doesn’t really work like that.

How will he be remembered? I have no idea. More than any other prime minister of my lifetime, his future reputation depends on how some truly momentous events play out: Brexit, the future of the European Union and of our own Union, the position of Russia in the world. Did he really make all the right calls when it came to the big decisions, as his supporters claim? It’s too early to tell.

In narrower terms, Johnson changed the Conservative Party in two key ways. First, he defeated Farage by absorbing the UKIP tendency into the Tories, and thereby squeezing out a few on the left of the party, the likes of Dominic Grieve, David Gauke and Rory Stewart, though Ken Clarke came back into the fold as Baron of Nottingham (sworn enemy of Robin Hood). And second, he promoted many of the ethnic minority Tories who had come into Parliament under David Cameron. The combination of those two factors means the Conservatives look different as a result of Johnson’s time at the helm.

They also look to be in deep trouble. The opinion polls are worse than they were in the dying days of May’s premiership, and the challenge from Labour is considerably more serious. Indeed, all the rhetoric of levelling up, without delivery, has prepared the ground nicely for a future Labour prime minister who wants to channel the spirit of Harold Wilson.

In addition there’s an imbalance between the front and back benches, the latter containing better known figures than the former: Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Jeremy Hunt, Theresa May, Johnson himself. There are rival poles of attraction for the media, sources of discontent and disparagement. The next election is by no means lost to the Tories, but it’ll be a tough one to win.

It’s not a great legacy. And it all seems a bit of a waste, somehow.

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