Opinion

Boris Johnson broke all the rules, but history may be kind to him yet

Boris Johnson was chosen by the Conservatives, and the voters in the 2019 election, to break the parliamentary deadlock and get Brexit done. Brexit is now yesterday’s argument. We are out of the European Union.

But the settlement leaves much for his successor to untangle. The Northern Ireland protocol, part of the withdrawal agreement, leaves Northern Ireland within the EU’s internal market and required to observe EU customs rules. This puts the union in question. If Northern Ireland is linked economically with Ireland, why, some ask, should it not be linked politically as well? Paradoxically, a unionist prime minister has put the union in doubt. Nor has he been able to persuade the Scots that he has their interests close to his heart.

Critics of Brexit predicted it would make Britain insular and racist. There is little evidence of either. We have led Europe in providing arms and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, where, by contrast with Britain, Johnson is regarded as a hero. An Ipsos Mori poll in February showed 46% of British voters believe immigration had a positive impact on the country, double the global average. There are still more people from EU countries in London than in any other European city.

Johnson has himself done much to raise the status of people from ethnic minorities and women. Of the eight candidates for the succession, four were from ethnic minorities, and four were female. Of three others who hoped to stand but could not attract sufficient support, two were from ethnic minorities while one was Jewish. If Liz Truss enters No 10, she will be the third female Tory prime minister. Labour has not yet had one.

However, there has been intolerance towards illegal migrants, desperate people with much to contribute to Britain. To propose sending them to Rwanda, a country whose human rights record is, to put it mildly, dubious, is shameful. In the words of Winston Churchill on the 1904 Aliens bill, the policy “looks like an attempt on the part of the government to gratify a small but noisy section of their own supporters and to purchase a little popularity in the constituencies by dealing harshly with a number of unfortunate aliens who have no votes. It will commend itself to those who like patriotism at other people’s expense.”

Boris Johnson waves as he enters 10 Downing Street after his appointment, 24 July 2019.
Boris Johnson waves as he enters 10 Downing Street after his appointment, 24 July 2019. Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA

The 2019 election saw a startling psephological transformation. Johnson led the Conservatives 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 of being in government, for the first time in their history outpolled Labour – by as much as 15% – among voters with low incomes. Labour is now more than ever the party of the exam-passing classes, devoted to “the material and psychological needs of the relatively affluent and the well-heeled”, as John Gray wrote in the New Statesman. If the vote had been restricted to graduates in 2019, Jeremy Corbyn would be securely in Downing Street, not an isolated independent on the Commons backbenches.

To meet the needs of the red wall seats, the Johnson government produced in its dying days a levelling up white paper. Many journalists dismissed it – but I wonder how many had actually read this important 300-page document. The government’s lifetime loan entitlement will offer every young person four years of post-secondary education, with a reformed funding model ending the artificial distinction between further and higher education. It will be just as easy for an 18-year-old to obtain a loan to study electrical engineering at a further education college as to read history at a university.

“Take back control” was the slogan of the Brexiters: restore the sovereignty of parliament as it was before Britain entered the European Community, as the EU then was, in 1973. But the constitutional reforms of the Blair era – devolution, directly elected mayors, the Human Rights Act, House of Lords reform – have created too many countervailing bodies. Johnson has not shown himself to be tolerant of checks on the elective dictatorship which parliamentary sovereignty legitimises. He has been reported as saying that devolution was a mistake, wanting to limit the Human Rights Act and has stuffed the Lords with ill-qualified cronies, whose only virtue is that they are prepared to do as he tells them.

But the central weakness of the Johnson administration, for which some will never forgive him, stems from his belief that rules are for others, not for him, culminating in the Partygate scandal which destroyed his premiership. There have also been allegations of questionable financial dealings, of misuse of patronage, and of economies with the truth. All this has been subversive of good government, for the Whitehall machine relies on ordered rules. By his insouciant attitude towards conventions, Johnson has inadvertently strengthened the case for a constitution. Life without rules, he has proved, can be nasty and brutish as well as short.

How is one to evaluate this strange premiership? 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 inquiry now in train.

All political lives, the saying goes, end in failure. Behind his public optimism, so valuable in raising the nation’s spirits during lockdown, Johnson may feel that the same has become true for him. But political legacies are complex matters, and the immediate verdict of the pundits 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, by contrast, is lower than in the days when it seemed we had never had it so good.

Churchill once said that history would be kind to him since he would be writing it. Johnson, an admirer of Churchill, may feel the same, and will no doubt seek to polish his record. He should be allowed to do so, free of the vindictiveness and self-righteousness which so often disfigures the liberal left. Loss of the premiership is punishment enough.

Vernon Bogdanor is a professor of government at King’s College London. His book The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain will be published in October

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