The eulogies of Boris Johnson are already tumbling off the presses, despite the fact his political career is not even dead. Some are a combination of relief and glee, while others make the fantastically exaggerated claim that his end is worthy of Shakespeare. These two imposters should be treated just the same; they will be forgotten before Lulu Lytle’s crimes against design have even been steamed from the Downing Street walls.
By far the most dangerous eulogising comes in the form of mythmaking; the pushing of narratives with the capacity to endure for years, informing our politics, potentially legitimising the rise of another Johnson in future – or even the return of the original.
“He was a good prime minister…”
Nonetheless, there are those among both the chattering classes and the public at large who wish to soften or distort this reality. Some of his enablers in the right-wing press do so to cover their own backsides, obscuring their complicity in this national disaster. Worse, others quite enjoyed his reign of reactionary chaos, and would be delighted to inflict it on the nation all over again.
In either case, the eulogising tends to spin one or more of the following yarns;
- Johnson was a good and patriotic man, brought low by establishment media
- Johnson was a political giant, felled by a cabinet of dwarfs
- Johnson “got us through Covid-19”
- His premiership saw him face impossible odds, due to the sheer number of catastrophes on his watch
We will hear these fairy tales recounted again and again over the coming years, frequently from the lips of Boris Johnson himself, often in exchange for exorbitant speakers fees. Whenever such words are spoken, they must be rejected.
“He was patriotic…”
Johnson is neither good, nor patriotic. There is no ethical calculator into which we could feed Johnson’s corruption, adultery, lies, rejection of his own children, vanity and disregard for life, and somehow emerge with the result “good.” Similarly, there is no model of true patriotism which includes lying to the monarch, vandalising the economy for kicks, and inviting international embarrassment.
As to suggestions he was brought down by the media, these are laughable. Few prime ministers have ever faced such a charitable media environment. Having made his name within that very media, he enjoyed the support of The Times, The Telegraph, the Mail, the Express and the Sun, one of which was a former employer who he gleefully referred to as his “real boss.”
Many of these outlets abandoned the very concept of objective truth in support of him; one of them even spent a full fortnight attacking the leader of the opposition for drinking a perfectly legal beer. The BBC apparently cowed often before the Government of the day, and treated Johnson no differently. Were this not enough, Johnson’s sister and father both enjoy their own media platforms from which they pontificate about his greatness.
Still, even the most belligerently supportive media needs some strategic work to be put in by the PM to make the whole con hang together effectively. Tony Blair, the only other landslide winner of this century, built a slick PR operation to manage his relationships with the media, and calibrated almost every decision according to likely media response; he was rewarded with ten years in office.
Johnson created scandal after scandal, until even his team of pooper-scoopers in the media could no longer disguise the massive pile of dung accumulated in Downing Street. The pro-Johnson media came pretty close, but even they couldn’t be expected to deliver enough ‘up-is-down, wrong-is-right’ propaganda to protect his administration from his own impulses.
Johnson was dealt a near perfect hand with the media, and flushed it away with his own dismal lack of self-control.
“But Johnson was felled by a cabinet of dwarfs…”
So, was Johnson a giant felled by ungrateful political dwarfs? In practical terms, yes, but that shouldn’t earn him a crumb of sympathy. Johnson spent 30 years building a personal brand; he created the idea of his own inexorable rise, and nurtured it within the public consciousness as far back as the New Labour era.
By contrast, his cabinet is a rag-tag band of non-entities and nodding dogs. His attorney general, in particular, would be unimpressive even in the offices of a provincial conveyancing firm. In public profile, if not in capability, Johnson towers above his short poppy cabinet. Still, as captain he hand-picked a crew with virtually no leadership qualities, and yet they still rose up and rebelled against him.
Johnson’s staunchest defenders should ask themselves; if Johnson was such a colossus, how could he not control a party stuffed with no-hopers? Alexander the Great conquered lands as distant as India before his troops rebelled; Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson couldn’t even manage a full parliamentary term.
Even in his resignation speech, he patronisingly referred to the herd instinct without any acknowledgement that the job of leaders is to set the herd’s direction. John Major, a man with barely a fraction of Johnson’s dark charisma, managed to spend seven years in office, holding together a cabinet containing such independently minded and ambitious talents as Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Howard.
Johnson managed less than three years in charge of dim bulbs like Oliver Dowden, Brandon Lewis and Helen Whately. His supporters might resent him being overthrown by a cabal of mediocrities, but the shame arising from that is all his own.
“And he got us through Covid…”
One of the most pernicious myths being peddled about Johnson’s tenure is that “he got us through Covid.” Again, on a technical level, this is true – those of us still alive to pass comment did indeed ‘get through’ Covid-19.
The fact remains, however, that there are 181,000 people (and counting) who did not survive the pandemic. According to the Resolution Foundation, Johnson’s delaying of the winter lockdown of 2020, arising from an almost infantile desire not to “cancel Christmas” cost up to 27,000 lives.
This was a grim re-tread of his first error, the late lockdown of spring 2020, which cost up to 20,000 lives according to epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson. The first late lockdown followed Johnson’s absence from five COBRA meetings; a long holiday in Mustique; lengthy pontification about Big Ben bonging for Brexit, and spending time resolving his matrimonial arrangements. Later in the year, he undermined public faith in restrictions by allowing Cummings to stay on after the Barnard Castle debacle. Coronavirus patients were discharged into care homes, even as Johnson’s health secretary lied about “[throwing] a protective ring” around them.
Despite the presence of a universal healthcare system and ample forewarning offered by the grim experience of Italy, the UK’s Covid death toll per million sits close to the top of the global list, more than three times the international average. Johnson’s Government presided over ‘one of the UK’s worst ever public health failures,’ according to a 151-page lessons learned report led by two former Conservative ministers.
Worse reports were to follow; Failures of State, a full-length book written by Sunday Times journalists George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Calvert, examines Britain’s pandemic response in devastating detail, and is as difficult to read as it is damning. And let us remember; mass death was Johnson’s preference, and on at least one occasion he even stated directly, exclaiming “let the bodies pile high in their thousands,” when bemoaning the need for a lockdown.
Despite his boosterish bluster about the vaccine rollout, Johnson’s record on Covid-19 should shame him forever.
“But he had to deal with several catastrophes…”
Finally, there are those who will claim that history dealt him a raw deal, with multiple catastrophes assailing his time in office. No other prime minister, he and his supporters may claim, faced odds as challenging as he did in office; Brexit, a pandemic, the war in Ukraine. To them, an otherwise smooth premiership was derailed by circumstance.
Brexit, at the very least, can be ignored in this calculation; Johnson deserves no sympathy for having to deal with the consequences of a decision he campaigned for, and via which he won office. While it is certainly true that no prime minister since David Lloyd George had to face a global pandemic, it is insulting to the intelligence to expect a prime minister to be excused the judgement of history simply because major events blew up on their watch.
One of the first tasks of an incoming British prime minister is to write their four letters of last resort to the commanders of Britain’s nuclear submarines, giving instructions on what to do if the British Government has been destroyed in a nuclear attack. Such are the stakes of international politics; life or death decisions must be made constantly, and unforeseen calamities arise with ugly regularity.
The five prime ministers prior to Johnson were forced to deal with; the first Gulf war, the 9/11 attacks, the collapse of the international banking system, the foot and mouth crisis, the Arab spring, the war in Syria and subsequent refugee crisis, and the election of a deranged extremist to the US presidency.
Is there any redemption for Johnson?
Anyone entering 10 Downing Street expecting an easy ride is deluding themselves. Anyone who enters while inviting comparison with Churchill – who stared down the armies of fascism, at one point alone – should know full well that catastrophe management is an inevitable part of the job.
So no then, there must be no redemption for Boris Johnson, and no excuses. He will certainly spend the coming years fostering these myths, and writing the history he plans to absolve him, but his musings must be rejected for what they are; a few more bin bags in the landfill of Johnsonian lies.