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In December 2019, Boris Johnson was on the Mount Olympus of British politics. While he had not become “world king” as he said during his childhood, he was the closest to that he could possibly be. After years of paralysis over Brexit, he had managed to get the premiership and deliver for his party a stunning electoral victory not seen since the times of Thatcher. Less than three years forward, Boris is out, the Tories are in full political cannibalism mode, and now Johnson looks more like Icarus than his hero Pericles.
The failures of Boris Johnson are in many ways evident, and my colleagues Edgar Beltrán and Ben Kew have made a superb job at explaining them. Rivers of ink have been dedicated to lambasting the eccentric Tory politician, so it is pointless to delve yet again into Johnson’s personal failings. After all, that has been the only news coming out of 10 Downing Street over the last year and a half.
Hence, let us get away from the bizarre details of Boris’ lockdown parties or the dysfunctional inner workings of the government, and let us take a bigger picture view of what Johnson’s premiership achieved and why it really fell apart.
The successes of Boris Johnson’s very short premiership
Let’s begin with what almost no one is talking about: Boris’ successes. Johnson’s premiership was very short and ceased with a humiliating end. Yet, it would be foolish to say he did not achieve anything during that small time. In fact, he arguably did more than his two predecessors (one who paved the way to disunion and the other who failed at doing the only thing she was elected to do).
Although he bungled much of the UK’s COVID response, Boris presided over one of the fastest and most effective vaccine rollouts in the continent (only surpassed by Israel’s), managing to get the majority of the population vaccinated as other European leaders oversaw disastrously chaotic rollouts.
In foreign affairs, Johnson was at his best. His government gave safe refuge to more than 100,000 Hong Kong refugees who fled the CCP’s authoritarian rage, something no other country has done. Of course, his finest hour was Ukraine. While Macron, Biden, and Scholz vacillated, Boris led the Western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The UK punched above its weight and sent tons of crucial military aid to the beleaguered Ukrainian army, which proved pivotal to defeating the initial Russian advance.
Boris’ greatest success, however, was Brexit. It might seem like old news, but getting Brexit done was no small feat. It destroyed the two previous premierships and engulfed the UK into constitutional chaos and political paralysis. In less than a year, Brexit (the biggest constitutional crisis since 1910) was swiftly resolved and the will of the British people was respected, avoiding the damage ultra-Remainers would have brought to the institutions if Brexit never happened.
Paradoxically, Boris’ biggest success revealed that the root causes for its ultimate fall went far beyond parties in 10 Downing Street and could not be papered over with successes with his successes on Ukraine or vaccines. His biggest political victory, the 2019 election, was less of a mandate and more of a poisoned chalice.
2019 election: A glorious mandate or a poisoned chalice
At face value, saying that the 2019 election set the foundations for Boris’ undoing might seem like a ludicrous claim. having an 80-plus seat majority is something that most Tory politicians couldn’t even dream of, the Conservatives finally had a clear, glorious mandate from the British electorate. However, the astounding number of Tory seats covered some deep tensions within the conservative coalition.
The key to the 2019 victory was that Boris destroyed Labour in its heartlands while retaining the traditional Tory seats. He managed to do this by not leaning on ideology too much but by promising the stability that was so elusive during the chaotic May years. By a combination of personal charisma and promising to get Brexit done, Boris managed to build an unnatural coalition.
Brexit was the glue of the coalition. From avid Thatcherites to the more moderate cosmopolitan Tories, and the newly conquered Labour heartlands, all of them wanted a quick and decisive end to the Brexit crisis. Nevertheless, the tensions remained, the Libertarian right salivated at the opportunity to deregulate and lower taxes, but the Tories from the Labour heartlands are far more suspicious of the small-government reflexes of some Tories.
Uniting both interests require an immense amount of political and policy skill, Boris tried but failed to square that circle, leaving his government in inertia. The apparent lack of initiative, and the COVID mandates that alienated Boris’ appeal to the libertarian right, opened him up to the Tories’ favorite sport, political cannibalism. Dangers, by the way, that the new Prime Minister will also have to face.
Johnson had the chance to redefine what conservatism meant for the next two decades. Yet the combination of an extreme and unforeseen crisis, personal lack of discipline, and the deep structural contradictions of the 2019 coalition regretfully destroyed his premiership.
In the end that is the tragedy of Boris Johnson, the apparent start of his ascension to political glory (the 2019 election) sowed the seeds of Tory’s division, and achieving his major victory (Brexit) left him aimless and out of office. This is why his premiership will be remembered as an eternal what-if, as a missed opportunity to reinvigorate the Conservative Party, as the transcendental government that never was.
Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.