The demise of Boris Johnson’s premiership in 2022 was both a surprising political upset and entirely predictable at the same time.
It was a political upset when considering the large majority the Conservative Party won in 2019 under his leadership, the best result of any political party since Thatcher’s 1979 election victory. Yet, after months of reports about Party Gate and scandal after scandal involving both Boris Johnson and various other MPs, his eventual resignation in June 2022 became inevitable. Indeed back in February last year my blog post questioned how he was still in post and argued that his brand was damaged. Five months later, after yet another scandal involving Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher, he was forced to resign.
It is still too soon to say how history will judge Boris Johnson, not least because there is still the possibility that he may return as Tory Leader someday. Few can deny that his ascent to the role of Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister in 2019 profoundly impacted British politics for many years to come. In 2019 I said that one of Boris’s strengths as a politician was that he could tap into people’s hopes and fears. He would have been a formidable Leader of the Opposition, and if the Conservative Party do not win the next election this theory may be put to the test.
Yet, Boris Johnson is a deeply flawed character whose political ambition has and continues to come first. What little political or policy conviction he held was primarily about staying on brand and winning votes. This in itself is not unusual and in modern politics, one can have quite a successful career by being transactional and self-promotional.
Boris Johnson was ultimately undone by both his own character flaws and by the direction of the Conservative Party, the latter being seriously out of touch with the mood of the British public.
Plenty has already been said about Johnson’s character flaws, which were well-known long before he became Prime Minister. For those who backed him, there was plenty of evidence that things would turn out as they did. The fact is that like Johnson, his backers promoted him for short-term gain. Specifically to break the political deadlock caused by Brexit and to win an election largely on that issue. It worked.
But the fixes the Johnson leadership provided, under the guidance of Dominic Cummins and others, were largely short-term. His oven-ready Brexit deal may have won the election in 2019, but has resulted in a long-term stand-off over the Northern Ireland Protocol causing ongoing problems. The bold assertion during his resignation speech that his government had fixed social care is simply not true, with the system overwhelmed and the system still facing serious workforce shortages and lacking proper integration with the NHS.
The three years of Johnson’s premiership will be largely remembered for the Government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic. As I have addressed in earlier posts, the Government failed in its response to the pandemic. Yes, the rollout of the vaccine was a success, in no small part because this task was administered by the NHS, one of the most trusted British institutions, rather than being contracted out to businesses with close association with the Conservative Party. Examples of favourable business deals, such as those given to Dido Harding or Michelle Mone, whose companies were awarded lucrative government contracts and failed miserably in delivering have left a sour taste in voters’ mouths.
This all happened under Johnson’s watch and he was simply not fit to lead the country during this crisis. But he did not act alone. It was a failure not only of the Conservative Government but also of the British state. The crisis highlighted the country was not prepared for a pandemic, and longstanding underfunding of the NHS made this much worse.
A month before Boris Johnson’s resignation at PM, I argued that during the current time when inflation has increased globally, national governments are limited by what they can do, in the short term at least. Incumbent governments of all political persuasions have struggled in the last year, so it is not surprising that the Conservative’s polling numbers have been poor during this crisis. But in the same way that the Tories blamed Labour’s spending levels for the 2008 financial crisis, despite strong evidence that this was not the case, they cannot now claim economic problems are beyond the control of the nation-state without looking like hypocrites. Again, the short-term electoral gain in 2010 has now made a rod for their backs a decade on.
Boris Johnson is unlikely to return to any leadership role in the short term, not least because the Privileges Committee is yet to investigate party gate and his actions during the pandemic. If this investigation does not go Johnson’s way, he may face a byelection that he is not certain to win. 1922 Committee Chair Sir Graham Brady has suggested that Johnson had the numbers to run for the Tory leadership against Rishi Sunak in October 2022, though others claim Johnson made a desperate bluff talking up his support during this leadership race. Given the number of MPs who called for him to resign only weeks earlier, including the 57 ministers who resigned themselves in protest, for him to return anytime soon is unlikely and unwise.
Yet he retains core support within the Conservative Party, and with a group of Tory MPs. He also enjoys a surprising level of support still with the British public, though nowhere near the level he enjoyed in December 2019. His two months as caretaker Prime Minister in July and August 2022 during a cost of living crisis certainly did not help matters, where he partied in the Cotswalds and took holidays in Greece while many voters struggled to pay their bills. Meanwhile, the Tory Party spent the summer holding a leadership election, where, as the next post will discuss, the least competent candidate was elected by Tory members.
Boris Johnson believes that like his hero Winston Churchill, he can return to power one day. He probably believes that he fixed social care, did a good job during the pandemic and did a good job with his Brexit deal. Or he knows that if you repeat a lie often enough people start to believe it. When you have a legacy to protect and want a future in politics, you say what you need to say and do what you need to do. And the Tory Party? Would they put him in power again? If they thought it would increase their vote, yes they would. That he is not suitable or trustworthy is no matter, when the motivation is power at all costs.
Were Johnson to return as Tory Leader for the 2024 election, he would almost certainly lose. However, he may motivate a section of the Tory base and Brexit supporters, possibly mitigating the losses. On the other hand, this might spur on a wave of tactical voting by Labour, Lib-Dem and Green voters to punish the Tories for putting Johnson back after all that has happened.
It is risky to make predictions, but it is safe to assume we have not heard the last of Boris Johnson. And much like Berlusconi in Italy, the results will undoubtedly be bad both for politics and the country.