Boris Johnson has a few days left as U.K. Prime Minister, but his time in office feels as though it has already come to an end. His belongings have been removed from the Prime Minister’s official residence at 10 Downing Street. He has deferred major decisions to address the country’s cost-of-living crisis to the next government. And as the rest of the country awaits the outcome of the Conservative Party’s leadership contest that will determine his successor—the results of which will be announced on Sept. 5—Johnson is embarking on a farewell tour before returning to the House of Commons, where he plans to reprise his role as a rank-and-file 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 lawmakers who don’t hold cabinet positions sit—his fall from power seems particularly tragic by comparison. That’s perhaps because, for a long while, it seemed as though there was nothing that could bring Johnson down. The 58-year-old journalist-turned-politician rose to international prominence as one of the leading campaigners for Britain to leave the E.U. 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 pledge to “get Brexit done.” Johnson’s landslide election victory that same year 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 nonetheless consequential, Prime Minister who transformed Britain’s place in the world all the while leading the country through the COVID-19 pandemic and a war in Europe. But as the country reflects on the past three years of Johnson’s leadership, another narrative emerges—one defined by the repeated undermining of the norms and values underpinning Britain’s political culture, perhaps beyond repair.
If Johnson’s political descent seems more extreme than that of his predecessors, it’s because “he had further to fall,” says Anand Menon, director of the London-based think tank U.K. in a Changing Europe. Johnson has said he wanted to carry on serving into the 2030s. But his term—general elections are 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 his failure to adhere to his own government’s pandemic restrictions. Lockdown parties at 10 Downing Street earned Johnson the distinct dishonor of becoming the country’s first sitting Prime Minister ever to be fined for breaking the law. Yet it was another scandal—the revelations that he promoted a lawmaker in February to a senior post responsible for party discipline despite knowledge of sexual misconduct allegations against him—that led to the tsunami of ministerial resignations that ultimately forced his resignation.
Johnson’s dramatic exit notwithstanding, no singular achievement seems to tower over his legacy more so than securing Brexit—because, without him, it may never have happened. His decision to back Vote Leave—he famously penned two newspaper columns, one for and one against, before publishing the former at the eleventh-hour—was a pivotal moment in the referendum. Prior to his endorsement, Leave was polling 15 percentage points behind the Remain campaign. “The result was close enough in 2016 for it to be quite plausible to reckon that he made the difference,” says Andrew Gimson, a political journalist and the author of a forthcoming book on the U.K.’s outgoing leader.
Whether Britain’s decision to leave the E.U. has been a net positive for the country is almost as divisive as the referendum itself. Supporters believe that Brexit’s full benefits have yet to be realized; its opponents, as well as a number of economists, contend that its harms are already being felt. This is particularly true on the island of Ireland, where a renewed dispute over post-Brexit trading arrangements between Northern Ireland (which is a part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland (a member of the E.U.) poses the risk of a potential trade war between London and Brussels. Meanwhile in Scotland, the legacy of Brexit (which was widely rejected by the Scottish electorate) and Johnson (who is deeply unpopular among Scots) has seen a surge in support for Scottish independence, which reached a record-level 55% last year.
The outcome of Brexit and the impact it has on the future unity of the U.K. will weigh heavily on Johnson’s legacy, not least if he comes to be remembered as the Prime Minister who ushered in a return of unrest in Northern Ireland or the breakup of the U.K. Some would argue that it already does. Despite anointing himself Minister of the Union, and leading a party whose official name is the Conservative and Unionist Party, Johnson “never tried to understand Scotland,” says Stewart McDonald, a Scottish Nationalist Party lawmaker. “He was a disaster for unionism and a gift 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 that he leaves on British politics itself. Aside from his stance on Brexit, much of Johnson’s popularity was rooted in his willingness 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 insurgent-style leaders, wasn’t afraid to play fast and loose with longstanding 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 from U.K. in a Changing Europe. “He was representative of a sort of anti-politics.”
This reputation gave Johnson cover to test the various rules and conventions underpinning Britain’s famously unwritten constitution and, on some occasions, even break them. He did so just weeks into his premiership, when he sought to temporarily suspend parliament in an apparent bid to prevent lawmakers from subverting his Brexit plans (a move that the U.K. Supreme Court subsequently deemed unlawful). He did so again when he opted to ignore the advice of his ethics adviser (a role that remains vacant after his second one quit) who said a cabinet minister breached the government’s code of conduct.
On these and numerous other occasions, Johnson not only undermined what the historian Peter Hennessy has described as the “good chap theory” of British politics—which rests on the belief that politicians can be trusted to abide by a shared understanding of what constitutes good behavior—but modeled how future prime ministers could do the same. (Indeed, the favorite to succeed Johnson, Liz Truss, has declined to commit to appointing an ethics advisor.) But some, including Gimson, say that the fact that Johnson was forced to resign from his post is proof that the British system remains durable. Others, however, warn that the damage the norm-breaking Johnson has caused may only be realized long after he is gone.
Johnson’s premiership “certainly widened the field of what is possible for future prime ministers,” says Menon. “He has 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 stretchy now than it was before.”
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