Voices: Goodbye and good riddance to the worst prime minister we’ve ever had

·5-min read

Boris Johnson’s legacy. Boris Johnson’s legacy. I have to confess that more than 20 minutes of thinking time have now passed between the typing of those two sentence fragments, and I’ve still got nothing.

The only thing that really leaps out in the wake of his so-called farewell speech is needless death. Tens of thousands of needless, unnecessary deaths, to be vaguely exact. That was the public assessment of his former chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, but Cummings is by absolutely no means more trustworthy than the man he has finally defenestrated.

To write about Boris Johnson, or to talk about Boris Johnson, is to talk or to write solely about Boris Johnson. Most national leaders are a window through which to view the life of the nation they lead. Johnson was a window that opened only onto himself. It has been written thousands of times that he is an optimist. That he is a booster, instead of a doomster or a gloomster. But ultimately, who cares? By one’s deeds shall one be known – and what deeds are there?

There was the taking of his country out of the European Union, an act in which he played a major – though nevertheless ultimately unquantifiable – role. But all of that happened long before he entered 10 Downing Street. And he would have entered sooner, had Michael Gove not suddenly realised his close ally was entirely unsuited to the job and deliberately taken him down. He would later join Johnson’s cabinet and have to pretend to have been wrong about the only thing he had so very obviously been right about. This is a defining Johnson trait: all who go near him are rendered absurd.

We might say he was unlucky. That he had significant gifts for leadership. Tone matters in public life – and a leader who can infuse a nation with their own upbeat tone is a rare and valuable thing. Obama had it. Johnson had it, too, but once he had used it for such divisive ends as the era-defining Brexit referendum, he arguably should have calculated that he would not have it any more.

He was, without question, the wrong man at the wrong time for the challenge he faced. Given he left almost nothing to be remembered for, it is possible that the absurdity will stick the longest. That photo, on New Year’s Eve, gurning at the camera, double thumbs up, promising 2020 would be a “fantastic year for Britain”.

Even without Covid, the basis of his promise was his country’s exit from the European Union, an eventuality that the vast majority of people living in the country he governed passionately did not want to happen. (This should not be controversial. Three million EU citizens live in the UK. They did not vote in 2016. Their views on Brexit are not something they have, generally speaking, kept secret.)

The “fantastic year” for Britain was spent cooped up indoors, with anyone over the age of 70 fearing for their life, and anyone younger than that fearing for their future. That is bad luck – but then, it is not a population’s role to pity its leaders for being entirely incapable of rising to the occasion that rises up to meet them. Other leaders emerged from the pandemic with their reputations embellished. Johnson did not.

It is hard to think of any historical parallel with Johnson. The winner of a huge majority, kicked out by his own party after barely two and a half years for reasons that extend no further than the man’s character. He is out of a job because his MPs reluctantly concluded that he couldn’t win them another election, because there was no one left in the country who would ever again believe a word he had to say.

But it didn’t just end in this way. It started in this way, too. Outside 10 Downing Street in July 2019, fresh from the palace, Johnson stared down the barrel of the cameras and chose to use that historic moment to declare he had “a plan to fix social care, ready to go”. He didn’t. Later he would talk of his “oven-ready” Brexit deal that, three years on, the government is still trying to extricate from the oven and somehow strip back to its basic ingredients. It can’t be done.

The plan for social care that was “ready to go” would, in the end, involve raising national insurance – a clear breach of a manifesto commitment.

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Johnson reckoned he could get away with this stuff. That, having broken so many rules, he would be forgiven. To an extent, he was. But ultimately he was not as big or as clever as he imagined himself to be. The Johnson worldview is one in which rules do not exist. They constitute, instead, a battle of wills. The accumulated parking tickets on his student car while he was an undergraduate in Oxford, after he reckoned he would never have to pay because of the car’s European number plate – it was not about the rule, but about the enforcer. Rules are for the little people, and he was simply better than them.

If Johnson still subscribes to such a view, it will be especially painful for him to have to accept that he has lost on his own terms. He thought he could lie away the little people, lie away the minor transgressions, but he couldn’t, and that was the end of him.

None of this, it must be said, is very interesting. The tale of Boris Johnson is a boring self-indulgent psychodrama about the personal deficiencies of a hopelessly overindulged human being, in lieu of a story about an actual country, the things it did, and what might have happened to it. Of lives changed, chances improved. None of that happened. Johnson waddles off the scene like a reverse Keyser Soze: not throwing off his limp, but rather having revealed in broad daylight the deficiencies that were always there.

Real people, the ones who voted for his party for the first time because they wanted to vote for him, had a right to expect better. One doubts that they will allow themselves to be conned in such a way again.