Boris Johnson broke all the rules, but history may still be kind to him | Vernon Bogdanor
BOris Johnson was chosen by Tories and voters in the 2019 election to break the parliamentary deadlock and push forward Brexit. Brexit is now yesterday’s argument. We are outside the European Union.
But the settlement leaves a lot for his successor to sort out. The Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, leaves Northern Ireland in the EU’s internal market and must comply with EU customs rules. This calls the union into question. If Northern Ireland is linked economically to Ireland, why, some ask, shouldn’t it also be linked politically? Paradoxically, a unionist prime minister questioned the union. Nor has he been able to persuade the Scots that he has their interests at heart.
Brexit critics predicted it would make Britain insular and racist. There is little evidence of either. We led Europe to provide arms and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, where, unlike Britain, Johnson is considered a hero. An Ipsos Mori poll in February showed that 46% of British voters think immigration has a positive impact on the country, twice the world average. There are always more people from EU countries in London than in any other European city.
Johnson himself has done much to elevate the status of ethnic minorities and women. Of the eight candidates for the succession, four were from ethnic minorities and four were women. Of three others who hoped to run but were unable to garner sufficient support, two were from ethnic minorities and one was Jewish. If Liz Truss enters No 10, she will be the third Tory female Prime Minister. Labor has not had one yet.
However, there has been an intolerance towards illegal migrants, desperate people who have much to contribute to Britain. To offer to send them to Rwanda, a country with a questionable human rights record, to say the least, is shameful. In the words of Winston Churchill on the Aliens Bill of 1904, the policy “looks like an attempt on the part of the government to satisfy a small but vocal section of its own supporters and to buy a little popularity in the constituencies by dealing harshly with a number of unfortunate aliens who have no voice. He will recommend himself to those who love patriotism at the expense of others.
The 2019 elections saw a surprising psychological transformation. Johnson led the Tories into new territory, the so-called Red Wall seats, most of them previously held by Labour. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on the 2019 election showed the Conservatives, after nine years in government, have for the first time in their history overtaken Labor – by up to 15% – among low-income voters. Work is now more than ever the party of exam-taking classes, devoted to the “material and psychological needs of the comparatively well-to-do and affluent,” as John Gray wrote in the New Statesman. If voting had been restricted to graduates in 2019, Jeremy Corbyn would be safe in Downing Street, not a lone independent on the Commons benches.
To meet the needs of the red wall seats, the Johnson government in its final days produced an upgrade white paper. Many journalists dismissed it – but I wonder how many had read this important 300-page document. The government’s Lifetime Loan entitlement will provide every young person with four years of post-secondary education, with a reformed funding model ending the artificial distinction between college and tertiary education. It will be just as easy for an 18-year-old to get a loan to study electrical engineering in college as it is to read history in college.
“Take back control” was the motto of the Brexiteers: restore the sovereignty of parliament to what it was before Britain joined the European Community, as the EU was then, in 1973. But the reforms Blair-era constitutional changes – devolution, directly elected mayors, the Human Rights Act, reform of the House of Lords – created too many compensatory bodies. Johnson has not been tolerant of the checks and balances of elective dictatorship that parliamentary sovereignty legitimizes. He was reported as saying devolution was a mistake, wanting to limit human rights law and stuffed the Lords with ill-qualified cronies, whose only virtue is that they are willing to do what he tells them.
But the Johnson administration’s main weakness, for which some will never forgive him, stems from his belief that the rules are for others, not for him, culminating in the Partygate scandal that destroyed his premiership. There have also been allegations of dodgy financial dealings, abuse of clientelism, and sparing with the truth. All of this has been subversive of good government, for the machine of Whitehall is built on orderly rules. By his carefree attitude toward convention, Johnson inadvertently strengthened the case for a constitution. Life without rules, he proved, can be nasty and brutal as well as short.
How to evaluate this strange prime minister? It was of course disrupted almost from the start by the pandemic – and on that the jury is still out, awaiting the report of the now ongoing inquest.
All political lives, it is said, end in failure. Behind his public optimism, so valuable in boosting the nation’s morale during the lockdown, Johnson may think the same has become true for him. But political legacies are complex issues, and the immediate verdict of experts can be far removed from the judgment of history. Clement Attlee was little regarded after his premiership ended in 1951. Today, his reputation is high. Harold Macmillan’s, on the other hand, is lower than when it looked like we’d never eaten him so well.
Churchill once said that history would be kind to him since he would write it. Johnson, a Churchill admirer, may feel the same and will no doubt seek to polish his record. He should be allowed to do so, free from the vindictiveness and self-righteousness that so often disfigures the liberal left. The loss of the post of Prime Minister is sufficient punishment.
Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at King’s College London. His book The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain will be published in October