Boris Johnson still has three weeks left in Downing Street. The removal vans have begun to arrive. The search for a post-premiership pad continues in earnest. The horse-trading between various newspapers to sign him becomes ever more blatant. But he is still the Prime Minister.
Yet he has a problem. It is a common problem, and one with which we are all familiar on long August afternoons. He is bored.
In The Sunday Times last weekend, Tim Shipman listed a few of Johnson’s recent activities. He dropped into Nadhim Zahawi’s meeting with the energy companies as a nominal “representative from Number 10”. He then joined his third Chancellor on a trip to Wales for a routine meeting – an occasion, according to Shipman, “at which a prime minister would not usually be seen dead”. The author then quoted a ministerial aide as describing Johnson as “giving off David Brent vibes”, a reference to the sitcom character who returned to The Office after losing his job.
But I think that slightly misses what is going on with Johnson. Clearly, being in office but not in power is not much fun. Johnson is reportedly frustrated with mayfly ministers spending their brief blip in Cabinet making announcements or jockeying for places in the next regime. He also faces a civil service dead set against any major policy initiatives.
With his hands thus tied, it’s no surprise if Johnson spends his time aping Tom Cruise or sunning himself in Greece rather than pottering around SW1. He is wiling away the time until he can sod off, make a pile in the private sector, and go back to letting being an MP be his fourth or fifth most important source of income. If people are willing to pay tens of thousands to hear Theresa May speak, he should be raking it in.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s ennui is still surprising – and especially so with regards to the example of his equally ill-fated predecessor. Cast your mind back to 2019. With Johnson and Jeremy Hunt touring the country, May used her final two months or so in office to establish her ‘legacy’. For a Prime Minister who had failed to deliver on her single central policy objective, this was her last opportunity to give future historians something nice to say.
As such, the Prime Minister who shut the Department of Energy and Climate Change as one of her first acts in office committed the UK to reaching Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. She introduced the legislation into the Commons after she had announced her resignation, and it came into force within three weeks. It faced little opposition by MPs. Nobody wants to be caught on the wrong side of Greta.
Not content with committing the country to a costly, unprecedented, and likely unachievable exercise in undoing the Industrial Revolution, May also announced measures to increase the UK’s contributions to tackling AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis; to “overhaul” society’s approach to mental health; to establish a new Office for Tackling Injustices; to invest £10 million in a ‘modern slavery research centre’; released a government green paper proposing measures to get Brits off fast food; and published the bill for a law to crack down on domestic abuse which she had first promised two years before.
Collectively, these costly exercises in virtue-signalling amounted to a concerted effort to prove to posterity that May had made progress on her personal priorities. We have seen little of this from Johnson. The closest he has come is a doubling of dementia research funding in honour of the late Dame Barbara Windsor. Worthy, but hardly an issue with which Johnson is synonymous. Apparently, speeches are due in the next two weeks on Brexit and Ukraine. But talk is cheap compared to the millions May was splashing around.
He is certainly more constrained than she was. Compared to today, the economy in 2019 was positively peachy. Yet that shouldn’t stop Johnson being able to rush out a few announcements, release a couple of papers, and generally show an interest in what his administration has achieved. Instead, he seems frustrated at still being there. His unwillingness to host a reception for the triumphant Lionesses – in contrast to May’s lauding of our World Cup winning cricketers in 2019 – seemed almost bizarre. One must assume that the Prime Minister is tired of Number 10 parties.
But there might be method to his moping. Since she left office, May has set herself up as the conscience of the Tory backbenches. Although she hasn’t yet developed Heath-like levels of incredible sulking, she has been ready to criticise her successor in areas which, often, could be seen as reflecting well on her own time in office. From Covid to international law, she has sought to point out the flaws in Johnson’s approach with as much enthusiasm as she chose not to apply to clapping his last PMQs.
Undoubtedly, this impresses the occasional MP or commentator. But it hardly makes a sustained impression on the country or party at large. Theresa May is not our Queen Across the Water.
By contrast, post-premiership, Johnson will walk into any columnist job he likes. Within a year, he will be writing Spectator cover pieces, enjoying a regular spot on GB News, and putting the finishing touches to his Shakespeare book. The 30-40 percent of party members who didn’t want him gone will provide him with his own devoted coterie of Johnson Jacobites. To them, he will hone the legend: the hero of Brexit, Covid, and Ukraine, brought down by pygmies. With his successor all at sea over energy and inflation, the next election steaming into view, the call will go up – “what if…”
So if Johnson currently seems uninterested in promoting his legacy, that does not means that the subject does not interest him. His is simply impatient to get out there and start shaping it for himself. Like Churchill, he will ensure history will be kind to him, for he intends to write it. And the story is not over yet.