Our illustration file for Boris Johnson finds him as Ulysses slaughtering Penelope’s suitors, clad in a Union flag T-shirt, peering through EU doors, leaping over hurdles, portrayed as the Incredible Hulk, engaged on Mission Impossible, pulling the sword from the stone, triumphant aboard a bus, beset by an angel and a demon, become a Gulliver grappling with ropes…and transformed into an olive. No other politician has as many images in our stocks.
All of which may help to convey his status as Britain’s most charismatic politician since Tony Blair and Conservative since Margaret Thatcher. So it is tempting on his last morning as Prime Minister to begin with who he is rather than what he’s done, and plunge deep into the dubious waters of psychology.
And write about the ebullient father, the gifted and depressive mother, his inheritance from both, his disrupted childhood, his familiarity with chaos, his selfishess, his kindness, his lack of malice, his talent, his tolerance, his learning, his jokes, his exploitation of people, his contempt for rules, facts and truth, his wonderful way with words.
You have heard all that before and doubtless will all over again. But it may be more useful neither to make the leap nor wander into a maze – that’s to say, into the futile business of exploring what he may do next and whether he might return to Number Ten. Instead, I will try to concentrate on the record.
Johnson leaves office as the only Conservative leader in modern times, other than Margaret Thatcher, to leave Downing Street with a one hundred per cent victory record (David Cameron didn’t win an overall majority in 2010 and so can’t be awarded full marks.)
She won three victories and he only one, so her footprint on history will be larger. Or will it? For Johnson gave the EU referendum result effect when Parliament was frustrating it, asked the people to Get Brexit Done, won what was close to a landslide majority – and took Britain out of the European Union.
The alternative that had been looming was a second referendum, which would have opened a door to civil disorder. For sparing us that and enacting the people’s will, Johnson deserves all the statues that he wants, and more (though I wonder if naming a pub after him would work better – with the ethos, if not quite the decor, of Falstaff’s Boar’s Head in Eastcheep.)
At any rate, the significance of Brexit is up there with, if not more impactful than, Tony Blair’s devolution, Human Rights Act, and the equality legislation prepared under him – even though Johnson comes nowhere near achieving Blair’s three consecutive general election victories.
But Brexit undoubtedly leaves him a more significant Prime Minister than John Major, Gordon Brown or Theresa May. It made null the legacy of Edward Heath, who also lost control of events, and his grip on office, too – since he won fewer seats than Labour in Febuary 1974 before failing to form a coalition with the Liberals.
Heath had a smaller majority than Johnson who, as we know, has not been defeated at the polls. Nor did the latter lost a ballot of no confidence among Conservative MPs – though it was clear, once he had lost the confidence of two in five of them, that he would soon be forced out.
Johnson will also be able to cite his support for Ukraine, AUKUS and our vaccine success during the pandemic as achievements (the middle one putting claims of British isolation post-Brexit into perspective). We are not well placed to judge which of his domestic policies, other than his economic ones, will leave a mark on the country.
Time will tell – for example, to what degree if any the English localism on his watch, of which the new East Midlands mayoral plan is the last example, will make any difference to anything much. Certainly, he has made only a start on bits of levelling up: that’s to say, on spreading prosperity more evenly, an aim from which adminstrations of all parties will be unwilling to resile.
By contrast, the economic legacy is unambiguous: record spending and record taxes. That Rishi Sunak insisted on the latter since Johnson himself insisted on the former is an unspoken truth about this leadership election. Sunak has wanted not to draw further attention to his poor relationship with Johnson, and has sought instead to make a virtue of tax and spend.
Coronavirus and its consequences undoubtedly contributed to the bills and the hikes, and neither Johnson nor Sunak were wrong in principle for imposing lockdowns and restrictions, though there are lots of questions in practice about scale, timing and effect. Maybe the eventual inquiry will get to the heart of the matter.
Nonetheless, plague and war are only part of the explanation for Johnson’s economic legacy, and at this point I have to give up on seeking to separate man and mission. Few who know him dispute that for Johnson himself, the man is the mission, and to look for ideology, let alone consistency, is to dig in the wrong place.
Indeed, he enters and leaves Downing Street as the most beliefs-light Prime Minister of modern times. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he isn’t a conservative, since conservatism is “so easy to look at, so hard to define”, as Bob Dylan sung in a rather different context.
But Johnson’s is not so much the conservatism of the head or even the heart as the conservatism of reflex: that we’re all doing ok, aren’t we – or at least most of us – so let’s stick at it, carry on and keep muddling through. I write this with no disrespect. After all, it is the instinctive disposition of a large slice of the British people.
Johnson seems to see his vocation as cheering us all up, perhaps because of a compulsion to cheer himself up. As a journalist, it meant writing marvellously entertaining columns for the Daily Telegraph, which though often late (as I can attest) needed no editing.
But what works for journalism doesn’t necessarily do so for politics – or at least for economics, which Johnson appears to see as a kind of Silverstone: a forum for lots of brightly coloured cars to speed around for the entertainment of the masses. Parp! there go 20,000 more police. Toot, toot! 50 million more GP surgery appointments a year. Honk! Net Zero by 2050.
Indeed, there is a touch of Toad of Toad Hall about the Prime Minister. What dust-clouds spring up behind him as he speeds on his reckless way! What carts he flings carelessly into the ditch in the wake of his magnificent onset! But the irresistible force of Johnson has run smack into the immovable object of respectable opinion, as eternal as Orwell’s “deep, deep sleep of England”.
Perhaps it was always destined to end so. Certainly, there are truths in life – for example, that a stich in time saves nine, beggars can’t be choosers…and that you can’t spend more than your earn. No politician has told the voters so since the Cameron/Osborne combination.
As the pound speeds downwards, Liz Truss will soon find herself having to do so. Putin and Covid have sent Johnson’s speed machines hurtling into the crash barriers. But turning the country into an NHS with a Union Flag on top has helped to do so, too. Not that most of his critics worry about that, or cared much about his weaknesses when he was London’s mayor. It was Brexit changed all that that. Respectable opinion will never forgive him for it.