Voices: The real ‘Boris effect’? Johnson fiddled while Britain burned
Never in the history of this country’s post-Enlightenment politics has so much damage been caused to so many by one man in so little time.
Boris Johnson was billed as the great hope of British politics, the man who would provide strong leadership after three years of lacklustre and divisive stasis under the dignified, if challenged, Theresa May. He had been a famous mayor of London for eight years, and was the biggest political beast in the jungle, the man who could light up any room and reach disparate parts of the country better than any other person in politics.
He won a great landslide victory in December 2019, the first by a Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. He wanted to be better than Thatcher – to be like Winston Churchill. But rather than being in the premier league of prime ministers, he finished bottom of the Vanarama National League.
Why? Because he had no clue what he wanted to do as PM, and even less idea how to do it. His incompetence went beyond failing to achieve more – he was responsible for corrupting the fabric of Britain’s constitution. Trust in politics, the standing of parliament, the judiciary, the civil service and the Conservative party, Britain’s standing in the world and the cohesion of the Union all suffered because of the way he conducted his premiership.
He left the country with a cost of living crisis, an NHS crisis, a fuel price crisis and strikes. And he bequeathed it to Liz Truss.
This was more than Nero fiddling while Rome burnt – because his rule went beyond damage just to the capital. His failure to do what he promised with social care, or to sort out problems with the NHS and the police – means we haven't simply lost opportunities: Britain’s problems actually deepened, and we have slipped behind our competitors.
What about Brexit? His choosing, for reasons of personal gain, to back Vote Leave helped tip the balance decisively against Remain. He made Brexit happen, but he hadn’t a clue what to do with it, and two years were lost when Britain could’ve been forging ahead, seizing the opportunities he sold to the nation. And that’s before we even get into the dishonesty of the Northern Ireland protocol.
His premiership started with an upbeat promise that swiftly dissolved into an empty bubble – as he made mistake after mistake and dealt out untruth after untruth. There was a depravity to what he did; he brought in people he knew who weren’t fully up to the job, while dismissing those who understood the task of prime minister who would’ve helped him craft his premiership.
In depth and in detail, I have written books on his six predecessor PMs. Each had their foibles, but none were anywhere close to being as outlandish and lawless in their approach as Boris. I hesitate to use these words, but there was something toxic and narcissistic to it, too.
The Boris effect will be felt for generations. It is difficult to find someone who has not been damaged by close proximity to him, the latest being the BBC’s former chair Richard Sharp – his connection to Boris made him look intemperate and indecent.
The premiership was a tragedy for those who voted for him to be leader in 2019, a tragedy for the country and ultimately a tragedy for Boris Johnson. At heart, he has kindness, and he yearned to do well and be liked. Note to readers of this column – don’t stand to become prime minister unless you really are capable of doing it. The consequences if a PM totally unfit for office walks through the black door of No 10 are almost unimaginable.
Johnson at 10: The Inside Story by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell is published by Atlantic and is out now