As Boris Johnson departs Downing Street, many want to remember him as the Prime Minister who delivered on Brexit, Covid and the war in Ukraine. But, while he had some success on these “big ticket” items, his enduring legacy is more complicated and tainted by scandal.
Many were surprised when, at the 12th and final Conservative leadership hustings on Wednesday evening, it was late-backer Michael Gove who introduced Rishi Sunak.
That surprise was then compounded when the former cabinet minister chose to heap praise on outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, despite having been fired as levelling up secretary by him a few months earlier.
“Let us never forget and let us make sure the country never forgets. He was the man who delivered Brexit. He was the man who delivered the fastest vaccine rollout in the world. He was a man who stood resolute with Volodymyr Zelensky and the brave people of Ukraine when others wobbled and shirked the struggle. So, on behalf of all of us, Boris, thank you for your service,” he told the captivated crowd at Wembley Arena.
Speaking outside the final hustings this week, some Conservative members suggested that, based on these successes, many will view Johnson’s departure with regret in future.
“We’ll have seller’s remorse in the future won’t we… there’s lots of members who still love him. You heard the clap when [Gove] mentioned his name. People still love him. Ukraine, the vaccine, Brexit – the big ticket items he got right,” one attendee told PoliticsHome.
For others, the lasting impression of Johnson’s political career to date is of a great campaigner and, ultimately, election winner. As one Conservative member put it, the party has “never seen such a uniting figure” as the current Prime Minister, the man who managed to “bring down the Red Wall”.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said that Johnson will likely be remembered more as “a super salesman rather than a skilled CEO”, an attribute most apparent in his involvement with the Vote Leave campaign and the majority win at the 2019 general election. But he believes the credit Johnson gets for both can be overstated.
“No one would be foolish enough to say that the Tories didn’t benefit from Boris Johnson’s charisma, and his ability to appeal to parts of the electorate that other Conservatives found difficult to reach,” he said.
“But if you look at his popularity more generally, he actually, during the 2019 contest wasn’t as popular overall as Theresa May had been in 2017. That’s an important thing to bear in mind, that the point about Boris Johnson was that he appealed to the right people at the right time. And, the fact that he turned a lot of people off in the end.”
The X Factor
According to Tony Travers, professor in the department of government at the London School of Economics, it was Johnson’s celebrity factor that made him such a unique politician, and catapulted him from Mayor of London into Downing Street.
“Somebody once observed he’s the only British politician recognisable from behind, in addition to being universally referred to by his first name. Very, very, few politicians are lucky enough to have that happened to them,” he said.
“Wherever he went people were trying to get selfies with him. He has that degree of style, a star quality, which meant people I felt emotionally about him.
“One of the reasons that partygate and the fall from grace proved so damaging is that the very emotional ties, the positive emotional reaction to him that many people have felt was suddenly replaced by a negative emotional reaction.”
Though many Conservative members still revere the Prime Minister, Bale believes that his record on delivering Brexit is likely to be “divisive and even poisonous”. He also questions the extent to which Brexit was actually “done” under his premiership.
“Johnson was very good at selling the idea that Brexit was an event. But of course, in reality, Brexit is a process. So, it was never going to be done and dusted in a way that he suggested. No politician can actually deliver it and then move on.”
Wither Levelling Up?
Another area of unfinished business for Johnson is his vision for levelling up, a flagship policy at the 2019 general election. Tim Durrant, associate director at the Institute for Government, said that the phrase had become “embedded” in the political zeitgeist. But, he argues that, much like Brexit, the mission is far from complete.
“It’s not new that this is a problem, that there are regional disparities across the country… But making such a focus is down for him. Whether or not something has actually happened as a result of that focus is still unclear.”
“I don’t think the concept has necessarily been fully proven, but the fact that this entered the political conversation, I think that’s his legacy.”
When it comes to his response to the coronavirus pandemic, the jury is largely still out. While the vaccine rollout was largely lauded a success, over 200,000 deaths in the UK have been linked to Covid, and there are enduring criticisms of the government’s decision making when it came to lockdowns and restrictions.
The ongoing public inquiry into the response to the crisis is due to begin preliminary hearings this autumn to unpack these criticisms, and Johnson’s responsibility for any successes or failings.
On his final “big ticket” achievement, the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the appraisal is much more positive. President Volodymyr Zelensky has praised Johnson’s “personal leadership and charisma” and thanked him for “helping more” than any other nation.
“He’s very much leaving as a cheerleader for Ukraine. That also, perhaps, allows him to cheer the benefits or opportunities or the strength of the UK outside the EU. Because we are, in a way he portrays at least, leading and doing things better than, or more than, other European countries,” Durrant said.
While Johnson would likely prefer to be remembered as the Prime Minister of Brexit, Covid and Ukraine, in reality many see his legacy as a lot less positive.
Throughout his time in Downing Street, he has battled a myriad of scandals from Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle, his defence of Owen Paterson, his handling of “partygate” and his response to allegations against Chris Pincher.
“There was this sense of one scandal being cleared and then another would break about some kind of misbehaviour or mistake by a minister or member of the government. And it never really stopped,” Durrant said.
This is a legacy, Bale suggests, that will likely haunt the next Prime Minister, and many more to come. He said the public perception of standards in public life has been “very badly compromised” under Johnson, and it was up to his successor to “pull us out of that nosedive”.
“He’s behaved in a way that, I think, on occasion has made people fear for the safeguards that we thought our Constitution had… He’s behaved in ways that no previous Prime Minister would have countenanced,” he said.
“The public cynicism about politics has grown so much that they won’t expect any better from whoever takes over. Or, that whoever takes over will actually restore some of the faith that we all need to have in a functioning liberal democracy. I’m not sure which way it will go to be honest.”
At Johnson’s final PMQs, Johnson referenced all the big successes of his premiership, from Brexit and the 2019 election, to Ukraine and the pandemic response. He also steered clear of overtly referencing the many scandals that had prompted his premature departure.
But, in his final remarks, he also hinted at the unfinished nature of his big ideas and the vision that he had for the country. Some read his final words as a suggestion that this vision, and perhaps his political career, were far from complete.
He told MPs: “I’ve helped to get this country through a pandemic and help save another country from barbarism and, frankly, that’s enough to be going on with. Mission largely accomplished, for now.”
Eleanor Langford is a columnist with PoliticsHome.com where she first published this article on Saturday 3 September 2022.