boris johnson has a few days left as prime minister of the united kingdom, but his time in office looks as if it is already over. His belongings have been removed from the Prime Minister’s official residence at 10 Downing Street. He has postponed important decisions to address the country’s cost of living crisis to the next government. And while the rest of the country awaits the outcome of the Conservative Party leadership contest that will determine his successor – the results of which will be announced on September 5 – Johnson is embarking on farewell tour before returning to the House of Commons where he plans reprise his role as a regular parliamentarian.
Although Johnson is hardly the first British leader to go from serving in the country’s highest political office to the backbenches of parliament – where non-cabinet MPs sit – his fall from power seems particularly tragic by comparison. That may be because for a long time it looked like there was nothing to topple Johnson. The 58-year-old journalist-turned-politician rose to international prominence as one of the leading campaigners for Britain to leave the EU. And after several years of stalled negotiations and parliamentary wrangling over what the country’s exit from the bloc should look like, he entered Downing Street in 2019 on the back of a promise to “make Brexit happen”. Johnson’s Landslide electoral victory the same year he gave his Conservative Party a mandate to govern with its largest parliamentary majority in more than 30 years.
If it were up to Johnson, perhaps the extent of his legacy would be: a short-lived but still consistent prime minister who transformed Britain’s place in the world all the while leading the country through the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Europe. But as the country reflects on the last three years of Johnson’s leadership, another narrative is emerging – one defined by the repeated erosion, perhaps irreparably, of the norms and values that underpin Britain’s political culture.
If Johnson’s political background seems more extreme than that of his predecessors, it is because “he had to fall even further,” says Anand Menon, director of the London-based think tank United Kingdom in a Changing Europe. Johnson said he wants to continue serving in the The 2030s. But his mandate – a general election is due in late 2024 or early 2025 – would not have been cut short were it not for a series of self-inflicted scandals, most notably the failure to comply with pandemic restrictions on his own government. Lockdown parties at 10 Downing Street earned Johnson the distinct honor of becoming the country’s first sitting prime minister ever to be fined for breaking the law. Yet another scandal – revelations that he promoted an MP in February to a top post in charge of party discipline despite knowledge of allegations of sexual misconduct against him – led to the tsunami of ministerial resignations that eventually forced his resignation.
Regardless of Johnson’s dramatic exit, there seems to be no particular achievement that dominates his legacy more than securing Brexit – because without him it might never have happened. His decision to support the Leave vote – he wrote the famous two newspaper columns, one for and one against, before the first was published at the eleventh hour — was a key moment in the referendum. Before his endorsement, Leave was polling 15 percentage points back the Remain campaign. “The result was close enough in 2016 that it’s quite plausible to think he made the difference,” says Andrew Gimson, a political journalist and author of a forthcoming book about the outgoing UK leader.
Whether Britain’s decision to leave the EU was a net positive for the country is almost as controversial as the referendum itself. Supporters believe that the full benefits of Brexit have yet to be realised; his opponents as well as a number of economists, claim that its damage is already being felt. This is especially true on the island of Ireland, where a renewed dispute on post-Brexit trade arrangements between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member) creates the risk of a potential trade war between London and Brussels. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the legacy of Brexit (which was widely rejected of the Scottish electorate) and Johnson (who is deeply unpopular among Scots) there was a surge in support for Scottish independence that reached a record level 55% last year.
The outcome of Brexit and the impact it has on the future unity of the UK will weigh heavily on Johnson’s legacy, not least if he is remembered as the Prime Minister who ushered in the return of riots in Northern Ireland or the breakup of the United Kingdom. Some would argue that it already does. Even though it’s smeared union minister, and leading a party whose official name is the Conservative and Unionist Party, Johnson “never tried to understand Scotland,” says Stuart Macdonald, an MP for the Scottish Nationalist Party. “He was a disaster for unionism and a boon to the cause of Scottish independence.”
But the other, perhaps even more consequential, factor that will shape how Johnson’s premiership is remembered is the legacy he leaves on British politics itself. Apart from his position on Brexit, much of Johnson’s popularity is rooted in his desire to break the political mold, as well as his defiant – some say clownish– brand of politics. He was an insider who successfully branded himself as an outsider, and like most rebel-style leaders, he was not afraid to play fast and loose with long-standing norms and traditions, especially when he saw them as a barrier to his political goals. Johnson’s rise “was a reflection of a deep-seated dissatisfaction with politics,” says Menon of the UK in a changing Europe. “He was representative of a kind of anti-politics.”
This reputation gave Johnson a cover to test the various rules and conventions underlying the British known unwritten constitution and in some cases even broke them. He did so just weeks into his premiership when he asked temporarily suspends parliament in an apparent attempt to prevent lawmakers from undermining his Brexit plans (a move that the UK Supreme Court subsequently deemed illegal). He did it again when he decided ignore the advice to his ethics advisor (a role which remains vacant after his second rejection) who said a cabinet minister had breached the government’s code of conduct.
On these and numerous something else casesJohnson not only undermined what historian Peter Hennessy described as “good theory boy” of British politics – which is based on the belief that politicians can be trusted to uphold a shared understanding of what constitutes good behavior – but models how future prime ministers might do the same. (Indeed the favorite to succeed Johnson, Liz Truss, did refused to commit until the appointment of an ethics adviser.) But some, including Gimson, say the fact that Johnson was forced to resign from his post is proof that the British system remains resilient. Others, however, warn that the damage that norm-breaker Johnson has caused may not be realized until after he is gone.
Johnson’s premiership “certainly expanded the field of what was possible for future prime ministers,” says Menon. “He questioned the rules of the game, and if someone else wants to come in and see how far they can stretch the system, I think it’s more stretchable now than it was before.”
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