Whatever Mr Johnson’s future is now that he leaves Parliament, his place in history is assured. It was the Prime Minister who made Brexit a reality. He put Britain at the forefront of support for Ukraine in its moment of crisis. Basically, he was a pioneering – albeit often controversial – Conservative leader. His career in elected office proved that Toryism could still deliver a unifying and ambitious message and reach parts of the country written off by less gifted politicians.
Among the many good things he has done, seeing the threat of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister will always earn the nation’s gratitude. Despite all the economic threats and geopolitical challenges currently facing the UK, things would have been infinitely worse, at home and abroad, under the socialist impulses of a Corbynite administration. He also came to the defense of the City when he was mayor of London at a time when other Tories had resorted to anti-capitalist demagoguery.
Brexit, however, will always define Johnson’s legacy, and rightly so. His decision to lead the campaign to leave the EU helped secure his slim margin of victory. As prime minister, he then pushed an exit deal down the line Theresa May had failed on three occasions, despite an astonishing Remain alliance determined to overturn the referendum results. Many people helped deliver Brexit, but it’s fair to say that without Mr Johnson’s help it may never have become a political reality.
It’s a pity therefore that his career ends, “at least for the moment”, in such a lamentable way. Irreconcilable remains aside, those in his party celebrating his passing are tragically myopic. Despite his many flaws, when it came to the ballot box, Johnson was a man with the Midas touch. Winning two terms as mayor of London, in a city seen by many as a no-go zone for Tory hopefuls, was a remarkable achievement. He then won over a very different audience in 2019, leading the Tories to a surprising victory, one that left them with the biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher. Too many of those who rejoiced at his premature departure from frontline politics have forgotten this crucial point.
Yet in office and with the security of Brexit, Johnson’s touch seemed to abandon him almost immediately. Taking the next vital step and getting Brexit done, seizing its opportunities, has proven too difficult. He signed HS2 and massive spending increases. Attacked by the global Covid catastrophe, it was overly influenced by pro-lockdown forecasters and the example of other more authoritarian countries, and ended up ruining the economy.
His huge majority has been wasted, Whitehall’s disastrous bureaucracy has not been reformed, and he has spent too long chasing Net Zero and a form of environmentalism at odds with his pro-progress and pro-growth positions. Delivering for the new coalition of voters he launched remains a work in progress.
Part of the problem was undoubtedly Mr Johnson’s personality, more suited to the poetry of the election campaign than the boring prose of everyday government. Yet there is no doubt that he also suffered from the burning resentment of the Remain establishment. Technocrats who saw Brexit as a populist uprising against all common sense accused Johnson of being its mastermind. The idea remained that by purging a man from the body politic they could somehow return to the status quo ante.
Now that he is leaving parliament, many question marks remain over the process that led to Johnson’s ousting. The behavior of some in Number 10 during the Covid pandemic was shocking. This rightly infuriated many who followed the rules themselves, often at enormous personal cost. It was therefore essential that the investigation into his conduct by the Committee of Privileges not only be impartial, but perceived as such. On this last point, he seems to have failed.
As Jeremy Brier KC points out in these pages, in a quasi-judicial setting, there should be no reasonable suspicion on the part of an impartial and informed person that judges were not impartial. Yet while the committee had a Tory majority, it was made up of MPs who were strongly critical of Boris. Former President Chris Bryant recused himself for making public comments prejudging the case. But he was later replaced by Harriet Harman, who was also reported to have tweeted about Partygate.
Nonetheless, as things stand, the Conservative party appears to be headed for an electoral nightmare. Recent polls suggest a Labor landslide could be on the cards. Some conservatives believe that a stint in opposition would do them good. Yet this attitude is a dereliction of duty to the country. There is a great ideological battle raging for the heart of the nation. At stake are not only the usual and vital questions of economic responsibility, but also those of national identity – including the ability to name our history and our heroes without apology – and even biological reality.
Labor may no longer be led by Jeremy Corbyn, but Sir Keir Starmer would undoubtedly swing the country to the left. His party remains committed to disastrous ideas on taxation, economics, class struggle, environmentalism and cultural issues. Conservatives need to fight, not just give up. They must stop destroying each other and remember who their real adversaries are. Johnson had a knack for unifying the country behind conservatives. Now the party needs to stop tearing itself apart and focus on what matters.
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