As the Conservative Party ends its internecine summer festival that has cemented its terrifying lurch to the right, we must consider fully the damage that Boris Johnson has wreaked. He must surely go down as the worst UK premier in living memory.
Johnson, and the motley crew of few remaining loyalists, will stress the importance of the “big calls”: getting Brexit “done”, the vaccine rollout, and his support for Ukraine.
Except none of these are successes: Brexit continues to inflict untold harm, the vaccine programme was a force thankfully largely outside of his control, and the UK’s firm support for Ukraine was a political open goal that fell fortuitously onto his lap.
Rather, Johnson’s legacy will be defined by two things: Brexit’s failures, and an appalling failure of public responsibility that has exposed the UK woefully weak public systems.
Boris Johnson is no Brexiteer a la Farage. The son of an MEP who lived and worked in Brussels, he often expressed support for EU membership until it became politically auspicious for him to change his mind. Much is made of his euroscepticism during his tenure as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, but he never once endorsed withdrawal. Indeed, he was banging the drum for a greater role for the UK. He believed the role of the UK in the EU was to spread the economic liberalism that was fast making the UK a services powerhouse. More recently, it is said that he wrote a glowing endorsement of the European project in a letter of condolence to the wife of the late Leon Brittain just a year. Here, he says it explicitly. Boris lied, and lied badly.
The story of Boris’ Brexit deal is so far, so bad. Or, more accurately, so far, so terrible. It is perhaps unnecessary to add any further evidence other than the fact that Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote to readers of the Sun to ask for ideas to make Brexit work. It has killed the intellectual weight that the Conservative Party once carried and turned it into an ideological vessel for Brexit. Those who dare speak out against the official party line of blind naivety are not welcome: it is the party of the sinking ship. The 2019 intake are the least pragmatic, least experienced, and least intelligent on record. They are the future of the party that once celebrated its relatively broad church ideological makeup. This has left UK politics with just one remaining serious party. This is bad for politics, and bad for the UK.
Economically, Brexit is causing untold damage. The UK is less dynamic, less competitive, and less prosperous than it was. Labour markets have been stressed by the absence of freely available European labour (see:https://www.ft.com/content/a9677ee4-281d-4d0d-8456-661982890304). Businesses are struggling to adapt to the mountains of red tape that a brutal and unnecessary ultra-hard Brexit has brought them. The Centre for European Reform has attempted to disentangle the Covid effect. They estimate compared to a “doppelganger UK” that is identical in every way but remains a member of the EU, UK GDP is 5.2% smaller than the modelled, doppelgänger UK; investment is 13.7% lower; and goods trade, 13.6% lower. Self-erected trade barriers have exacerbated inefficiencies in global supply chains, fuelling inflation and worsening the cost of living crisis.
Johnson supporters may point to the fact that the UK had a faster vaccine rollout than the EU. But none of the vaccine success can be chalked up to Brexit. As the chief executive of the MHRA swiftly pointed out, Mr Hancock was wrong to say that the UK could approve the vaccine early because it was no longer subject to EU rules. The MHRA’s decision was taken in accordance with the relevant EU legislation, which allows member states to grant temporary authorisation for a medicinal product in response to the spread of infectious diseases (among others). This legislation still applied to the UK until the end of the transition period. Any EU member state could have used the same provision of the legislation to approve the vaccine. They decided not to for political and technical reasons, not legal ones. If anything, Brexit delayed the vaccine rollout by imposing border delays on imported vaccines.
The benefits of Brexit are not subtle, they are non-existent.
Most disturbingly, Johnson’s mercurial attitude towards the truth of Brexit has decimated across the political arena. Liz Truss, the almost self-proclaimed heir to Johnson has inherited his blindness to realism. Even Keir Starmer wants to “make Brexit work”. Brexit won’t work unless we give up on Brexit.
But even the disasters of Brexit are not as damaging as the effect that Johnson’s character had on British politics. Putting aside his appalling failure of leadership over partygate, This is the man who attempted to change the law when one of his own MP’s was found to be in breach of it (Owen Paterson), attempted to illegally silence a recalcitrant Parliament, joked about rampant sexual misconduct, and repeatedly tried to pass the blame onto a blameless civil service when things went wrong. He did what he has always done: place his own interests above the interests of duty, service, and public interest. This was most obvious when he dug his feet in and refused to go.
This is unprecedented in British politics, which relies so much (too much?) on the “good chap theory” of government. If the precedent he set continues under Truss, as it looks it might, our political system will need to be rebuilt from the bottom up. All eyes are on how she tries to navigate the Northern Ireland protocol. Her fundamental lack of talent leaves me to conclude that she will likely attempt to break international law by reneging on the UK’s treaty commitments.
The UK premier has almost unparalleled power, only constrained by a loosely knit net of conventions and common law. As such, good character is essential. Boris, in spite of his enormous natural talent, lacks the character. His disastrous, populist, and at times illegal, legislative programme is of secondary importance.
Good riddance Boris.