Boris Johnson’s messy political legacy of lies, scandal and delivering Brexit to his base

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(THE CONVERSATION) Boris Johnson, the current outgoing Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, wanted to follow in the footsteps of his idol Winston Churchill and be remembered as an important leader. He yearned for greatness and wanted to stay in the job longer than the 11 years enjoyed by Tory icon Margaret Thatcher.

This was not to be the case.

Instead, on July 7, 2022, Johnson announced that less than three years after becoming prime minister, he was stepping down and would only stay in office until a successor emerged. It marks a stunning repudiation of a leader who delivered Brexit to his supporters and won a major electoral mandate just two and a half years before.

The scandal that led to his downfall was not Johnson’s first. Indeed, throughout his career — and tenure — Johnson has been seen as a political Houdini, gifted in political survival and able to bounce back endlessly from mishaps.

But even he couldn’t get over the succession of scandals in recent months, including “Partygate”, which involved revelations about his government’s repeated and brazen disregard of its own COVID-19 lockdown rules. In the end, it was his handling of a sordid case involving the promotion of an MP accused of aggravated sexual acts that broke the camel’s back. This scandal precipitated a wave of cabinet resignations that made it clear that Johnson could no longer count on the support of his own party.

Yet Johnson’s legacy will not be limited to scandals. His tenure coincided with major challenges in the UK. Some, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the outbreak of war in Europe, were not his fault. Others, notably Brexit, were by his own hand.


The first came Brexit

Boris Johnson and Brexit will forever be inextricably linked.

Johnson had long been a prominent political figure before Britain’s exit from Europe dominated British politics. Besides being an MP, he was also a Mayor of London and a well-known media personality. Throughout, Johnson, a fiscal conservative by nature, developed a reputation for being polarizing – witty and charming to some, but dishonest and untrustworthy to others.

We have long spoken of him as a future prime minister. But it was the 2016 Brexit referendum on keeping the UK in the European Union that ultimately propelled Johnson to power. He became the face of the Leave campaign, sometimes taking liberties with the truth to advocate for leaving the EU. Although he did not become Prime Minister immediately after the British public chose to leave the EU, his time would come three years later.

When Prime Minister Theresa May resigned in the summer of 2019, weakened by major divisions over how to implement Brexit within the Conservative Party, Johnson seized her chance.

He promised to “Get Brexit Done” and end the major stalemate in British politics over what kind of relationship the country would have with the EU.

On that front, he delivered. The December 2019 election was a resounding success for Johnson, securing a substantial majority for the Conservative Party and enabling him to push through his Brexit vision. His brand of populism, charm, defiance of rules and effective communication not only strengthened the Conservative base in this election, but also helped attract many traditional left-leaning Labor voters, securing a clear mandate for his party.

With that victory in hand, Johnson was free to complete the UK’s formal departure from the EU on January 31, 2020. Later that year, after tumultuous talks, his government brokered the trade deal and cooperation with the EU – defining the future relationship between the UK and its European partners.

Brexit was and remains very controversial in the UK. But neither supporters nor opponents would deny how consequential that decision was, and it could not have happened without Johnson’s involvement.

… then the pandemic

Any hope that Johnson could bask in Brexit glory quickly crumbled within weeks of it becoming a reality.

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic radically changed the situation for the UK Johnson and his government fumbled their initial response to the pandemic, acting slowly and lackluster – Johnson himself was absent for some of the crucial meetings convened to discuss the pandemic in its early days.

According to a government report published in October 2021, the government’s decision to delay a strict lockdown allowed the virus to circulate widely and caused several thousand additional deaths. And it nearly killed Johnson himself, who spent a week in hospital in April 2020.

As Johnson recovered from his own battle with the virus, his government also managed to stabilize the ship. He introduced a series of strict lockdowns and restrictions the following year and presided over a successful rollout of vaccination. But those same COVID-19 restrictions would also ironically highlight one of Johnson’s key character traits: a disregard for the rules that would ultimately lead to his political undoing.

…and on the lies

Prior to becoming prime minister, Johnson was no stranger to controversy and a delicate relationship with the truth.

The Times newspaper, where he once worked as a reporter, fired him for making up a quote. And in 2001, he lost his leadership job in the Conservative Party for lying about an affair.

Yet despite numerous setbacks, usually on his own initiative, Johnson had an amazing ability to bounce back, leading former Prime Minister David Cameron to compare him to a “greased piglet” who couldn’t be caught.

His tenure was consistent with precedents, littered with multiple scandals that continually led to questions about Johnson’s credibility. This included, among other unfavorable stories, that Johnson had received an undisclosed secret loan to pay for the cost of refurbishing his private quarters at 11 Downing Street, beyond his public allowance; or reports of a close ally in parliament breaking lobbying rules by accepting payments from companies he was promoting.

Yet these pale in comparison to the repercussions of “Partygate.”

Revelations in late 2021 and early 2022 that Johnson and his government had repeatedly broken COVID-19 restriction rules over the course of a year – including numerous alcohol-fueled parties and accusations that Johnson allegedly lied to Parliament about attending certain rallies – shocked the British public. This scandal caused Johnson’s approval rating to plummet in 2022. It also slowly but surely caused Johnson to lose the support of his own party.

The war in Ukraine gave him a temporary reprieve and he narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in early June. But he was now vulnerable. His latest scandal, which surfaced when it became clear that Johnson was lying about what he knew about the transgressions of another close ally in Parliament, Chris Pincher, was the final nail in his political coffin.

Abandoned by most of his allies, Johnson had to accept the inevitable.

A second act?

Churchill lost the 1945 summer general election, shortly after leading Britain to victory in World War II.

Ousted by an electorate wanting to break with the policies of the old world of Churchill and another post-war Britain, he was still able, six years later, to return to office.

Such a second act seems unlikely for Johnson. Yes, he delivered on Brexit, and his supporters will remember that. But his chaotic departure, leaving his country and his party deeply divided, as well as the legacy of his scandals, will be extremely difficult to shake off – even for a “greased piglet”.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/boris-johnsons-messy-political-legacy-of-lies-scandals-and-delivering-brexit-to-his-base-186601.

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