JILL LAWLESS Associated Press
LONDON — Removal vans have already started arriving in Downing Street as Britain’s Conservative Party prepares to evict Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The debate over the mark he left on his party, his country and the world will linger long after his departure in September – if, indeed, he is truly gone for good.
Johnson, 58, led Britain out of the European Union and won a landslide election victory before his government collapsed in a heap of ethics scandals. In his last appearance in Parliament as Prime Minister in July, he summed up his three years in office as follows: “Mission largely accomplished”.
Many political historians take a more severe view.
“Winston Churchill said ‘history will be kind to me because I intend to write it,'” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “I’m pretty sure Johnson does too, but I doubt he finds it as nice to him as he is to his hero.”
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Johnson cultivated a buffoonish public image, but he had a serious impact on his country. He bears much of the credit, or blame, for Britain’s departure from the EU, a momentous decision whose consequences will be felt for years to come.
“The only thing you can say is his legacy is Brexit,” said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “You can’t take that away from him – it’s just a matter of whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
Johnson’s support for the ‘leave’ campaign in Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership was vital to his victory. He had a grassroots appeal that no other activist could match. During wrangling in parliament over leaving terms that brought down Prime Minister Theresa May three years later, Johnson took over with a vow to “get Brexit done”.
He led the Tories to a huge election victory in 2019 and kicked Britain out of the EU the following year. But the long divorce seems far from “done”. Relations with the EU have soured over unresolved disputes over Northern Ireland’s trade rules.
New customs and regulatory barriers are also hampering trade between Britain and the 27 EU countries. The benefits of Brexit touted by Johnson and other supporters – a chance to tear up onerous EU rules and create a more vibrant economy – have yet to materialize.
Johnson’s promises to redistribute investment and opportunity in neglected parts of Britain also remain unfulfilled. His successor – either Foreign Secretary Liz Truss or former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak, who are in a Conservative Party leadership race whose outcome will be announced on September 5 – inherits a shrinking economy and of a cost of living crisis triggered by factors such as Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Margaret MacMillan, emeritus professor of international history at Oxford University, said Johnson had left the UK both economically and constitutionally weakened.
“The Union is weaker, the status and future of Northern Ireland in question, and relations with the EU, which is still Britain’s main trading partner, (are) no better , if not worse, than when he became prime minister,” she said. .
The other defining event of his premiership was COVID-19, which landed Johnson in intensive care in April 2020 and claimed more than 180,000 lives in Britain.
Johnson hesitated before imposing a nationwide lockdown in March 2020; experts later said acting a week earlier would have saved thousands of lives. Britain then suffered three long lockdowns, a deep economic crisis and one of the highest death rates in Europe. But the UK’s vaccination programme, led by a task force of scientists and businessmen, is widely seen as a major success.
Victoria Honeyman, associate professor of British politics at the University of Leeds, said the verdict on Johnson’s pandemic toll was in the eye of the beholder.
“His supporters would argue that his actions were beneficial and justified,” she said, “while his critics would argue that those actions were the bare minimum.”
Besides Brexit, Johnson’s main international cause has been Ukraine. He was one of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s most important allies, and Britain backed the rhetoric with billions in military and humanitarian aid to help the country resist the Russian invasion. The support has made Johnson a popular figure in Ukraine, although critics say any other British leader would have followed the same policy.
Johnson’s domestic policy accomplishments were few. His administration was chaotic, wracked with factionalism and constantly in crisis mode, as a lifelong record of bending and breaking rules finally caught up with him.
He faced public wrath at lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street during the pandemic, for which he was fined by police. But his appointment to a key post of a politician who had been accused of sexual misconduct proved a scandal too far for Tory lawmakers, who kicked him out.
Critics said it was a long overdue reward for a politician who degraded British politics with his populist disregard for ethics and truth.
“The tragedy is that whoever replaces Johnson will inevitably be someone who has tolerated his lying, corruption and incompetence for years,” Cambridge University history professor Richard Evans wrote in the New Statesman. “The mess Boris Johnson has left behind will take a long time to unravel.”
But another Cambridge historian, Robert Tombs, said Johnson could one day be seen as “a very underrated politician”, especially if he publishes his own account of his tenure.
“The main theme will be that, though afflicted with human frailties, he was right when it mattered,” Tombs wrote on the Spiked website.