Boris Johnson has resigned as Britain’s prime minister, shortly before reaching the third anniversary of his accession to power. During his time in office, Johnson left a much deeper imprint on British politics and society than many British premiers who served for a lot longer — and that imprint was uniformly malign.
Above all, Johnson botched the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic at several key points, resulting in “many thousands of deaths which could have been avoided,” as a parliamentary inquiry concluded. He also fixed the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union in a way that never commanded majority support, but which now appears set in stone. In his final weeks as PM, Johnson served up a poison pill for politics in the North of Ireland, compounding the damage he had already done to the region’s fragile power structure.
Many commentators are rightly mocking the Conservative MPs who have suddenly discovered, in the last few months, the last few weeks, or even the last few days, that Johnson is unfit to lead their country. Every fresh revelation about Johnson’s mendacity and low ethical standards merely confirmed what we already knew about his character when those MPs chose him as their standard-bearer. They only turned on Johnson when it became clear that he was a burden rather than an asset for their own career prospects.
However, the list of those who greased Johnson’s path to power is much longer than that. All kinds of people who claimed to be opponents not merely of Johnson as an individual but also of the political ideology that he represents nonetheless rallied behind him in the 2019 general election. So did figures in the British media with a professional obligation to remain nonpartisan.
When push came to shove, they all considered a Johnson-led administration to be preferable to a left-wing government that might undo the legacy of Thatcherism. Let’s give them their due credit for the Johnson years.
Two Lords A-Leaping
Ian Austin and John Woodcock were both elected as MPs for Labour-held seats (Dudley North, 2005, and Barrow & Furness, 2010, respectively) but refused to accept Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of their party after 2015. Media coverage frequently depicted them as courageous dissidents, although their main political concern appeared to be support for Middle Eastern states responsible for gross violations of human rights, including Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Woodcock backed the Saudi invasion of Yemen and denounced Corbyn’s call for a freeze on arms sales to the Saudi war machine.
Both MPs resigned from the Labour Party after the 2017 general election, having only held on to their seats by a tiny margin thanks to the big increase in support for Labour. In the run-up to the 2019 election, they established an opaquely funded campaigning group called Mainstream UK whose sole purpose was to denounce their former party, as Independent reporter Jon Stone observed:
Despite the non-partisan branding and mission statement under which it solicits cash donations, the group’s entire advertising output is in actual fact targeted at the opposition Labour Party — the bulk of it on issues like taxation and public ownership. Mainstream UK appears to have little organic support and is only “liked” 94 times on Facebook, but its posts have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people because it has spent thousands of pounds promoting them as adverts.
Both men urged voters to support Boris Johnson, and they received life peerages from his government shortly after the election. Since becoming a lord, Austin has kept himself busy denouncing everyone who criticizes Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, from Amnesty International to Ben & Jerry’s. A tweet last year, suggesting that the ice cream company would now be selling “Hamas Terror Misu” in Gaza, gave us all a taste of Austin’s political worldview.
Change UK Can Believe In
Austin and Woodcock weren’t the only Labour MPs to break ranks under Corbyn. In February 2019, seven MPs resigned from the party and set up the Independent Group, which later became Change UK. There was a lot of talk in the commentariat about their potential to break the mold of British politics. Yet in the 2019 election, Change UK — now calling itself the Independent Group for Change — took just over ten thousand votes, marginally outpolling the Monster Raving Loony Party.
All of the Labour defectors lost their seats — including those who defected a second time to the Liberal Democrats — apart from the ones who decided not to stand. They’ve since gone on to higher things: Chris Leslie became the CEO for Britain’s association of debt collectors, Luciana Berger took up a plum position with the PR firm Edelman, while Chuka Umunna started working for J.P. Morgan.
The chief organizer of the splinter group was Gavin Shuker, the MP for Luton South. In April 2020, Shuker explained what the main purpose of Change UK had been:
People might ask me in 30 years “what did you achieve in your time in politics?” I’m no fan of this government obviously. But still, I will be able to say I helped prevent Jeremy Corbyn from leading us through a huge national crisis. And to be honest, I’ll take that.
Of course, the only alternative Prime Minister to Corbyn in 2019 was Boris Johnson. If Shuker has revised his opinion of Johnson’s crisis-management skills in the light of the past two years, he has yet to reveal it.
The World’s Most Selective Anti-Racists
During the final weeks of the 2019 election campaign, the Guardian published an open letter signed by a group of celebrities urging people not to vote Labour and gave it front-page coverage. The signatories claimed that it was impossible to vote for a party led by Corbyn because of their concerns about antisemitism. The words “Boris Johnson” did not appear at any point in the letter, and there was no suggestion that it was morally impermissible to vote for his party, so they clearly perceived no such issue with the Tory leader.
In fact, the only reason the celebrities could imagine for opposing Johnson was Brexit. They insisted that it should take second place to their deeply held concerns:
Antisemitism is central to a wider debate about the kind of country we want to be. To ignore it because Brexit looms larger is to declare that anti-Jewish prejudice is a price worth paying for a Labour government. Which other community’s concerns are disposable in this way? Who would be next?
Although the final questions were meant to be rhetorical, they received a blunt answer from the silences of the open letter itself. The concerns of black people in Britain about continued Tory rule, after the shame and trauma of the Windrush scandal, were clearly disposable. So were the concerns of British Muslims, who had been specifically targeted by Johnson, and who went on to vote overwhelmingly for Corbyn’s party.
After his election triumph, Johnson’s government predictably turned out to be a horror show of performative bigotry, culminating in the plan to forcibly transfer asylum seekers to Rwanda. The victims of Tory racism could certainly use some “unwavering solidarity” from the open letter’s signatories, many of whom have public platforms at their disposal. That solidarity appears to have gone missing in the post.
The Liberal Arts
The Financial Times had a real dilemma on its hands in the 2019 election. On the one hand, the paper’s editorial board firmly believed that Britain should either stay in the European Union or negotiate a close trading relationship with the EU if that proved to be impossible. A victory for Boris Johnson would take both options off the table, while a Labour-led government would hold a second referendum on EU membership, with a soft-Brexit deal as the alternative on the ballot paper. For self-styled Remainers, the choice should have been an easy one.
On the other hand, Labour under Corbyn and John McDonnell had drawn up an ambitious program of social democratic reforms that would transform the British economic model if put into effect, in a way that the FT found deeply unattractive. The paper’s leader on the general election thus had to tread a delicate path. It began by appearing to wish a plague on both houses:
The Conservatives and Labour, colonized by populists, have abandoned the centre. Both have purged voices of moderation. Both offer illusory remedies that hark back to a half-imagined past — Boris Johnson’s nationalist Tories to the days of warm beer and empire; Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left Labour to the state control of the 1970s.
However, the FT went on to explain that the party “most distant” from its values was the one led by Corbyn: “Its socialist blueprint would replace a thriving market economy with a statist model. Labour aims to reverse, not revise, the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s.” If Labour stood furthest away from the FT’s values, the Conservatives must logically have been a few crucial steps closer:
We recognize that many in the business community and beyond will inevitably conclude they must vote Conservative, however reluctantly, as the only way to keep Mr Corbyn from power. While a hung parliament might, in theory, allow Brexit to be rethought, this too would risk ceding dangerous influence to the Labour leader.
Anyone “in the business community and beyond” who was still wavering about their choice will have picked up the message loud and clear: you can swallow your reservations about Johnson or Brexit with a clear conscience and vote Tory to keep out the Left and preserve “the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s.”
The FT’s prognosis for a Johnson premiership — “little in his past suggests he is capable of pivoting from opportunist to statesman” — was a considerable understatement. By the following June, the paper was reporting on Britain’s COVID-19 disaster, with the country facing “one of the worst death rates and biggest economic disasters of any major economy.” But the Thatcherite revolution still seems to be in good shape, so it’s not all bad news.
That’s Why They Pay Them the Big Bucks
The Conservative victory in December 2019 was so decisive that it came to seem inevitable with the benefit of hindsight. However, that clearly wasn’t the way Johnson’s supporters in the media saw things while the election campaign was still in progress. The 2017 result had been a major shock to the system, and there was evidently a nagging fear that it might happen again. As a result, the right-wing press threw caution to the wind, even promoting far-right, antisemitic conspiracy theories that were directly sourced from neo-Nazi groups in a bid to tarnish Labour.
Journalists who were nominally supposed to be impartial displayed the same recklessness. During the campaign, the Tories kept Johnson away from spontaneous, unstructured public appearances as much as possible, evidently worried that his true personality might come to light in an unguarded moment. An episode in the last days of the election showed why they were right to be concerned.
The Daily Mirror published a photo of a sick child who had been forced to sleep on the floor at a hospital in Leeds. It immediately went viral, dramatizing the severe strain on the National Health Service after a decade of Tory cuts. When a reporter asked Johnson to comment and held up the image of the child on his mobile phone, Johnson bizarrely responded by putting the phone in his pocket. His evident lack of concern for the well-being of others, which verges on outright sociopathy, had imposed itself on the campaign.
The Tories sent Johnson’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, to the hospital on a damage-control exercise. Their spin doctors then began telling senior figures in the British media that a mob of angry Labour activists had confronted Hancock and violently assaulted one of his aides. Every detail of the story was a brazen lie, but that didn’t stop the BBC and ITV political editors, Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston, from circulating it through their Twitter accounts to an audience of millions.
Fortunately, there was video footage of what really happened. Kuenssberg and Peston had to retract their claims and apologize, but the Tories had successfully diverted attention from Johnson’s behavior. Neither of these amply renumerated correspondents made any attempt to explain why they offered themselves as conduits for disinformation at a time when accurate reporting was so vital. Peston explained that he had received the story from “senior Tories,” but did not name them or even pledge not to rely upon their off-the-record briefings in future.
Soon after the election, Peston welcomed Matt Hancock as a guest on his show without pressing him to explain where the story of the assault came from. Now that the danger of a left-wing government had been averted, nobody wanted to talk about the methods used to achieve that goal. Broadcasters like Peston and Kuenssberg could go back to presenting themselves as nonpartisan figures who simply wanted to inform their audience about the world of politics.
Hate the Game
Boris Johnson is an odious character who deserves every last drop of humiliation that circumstances can pour upon his head. But his personality is much less important than the political culture that enabled him to reach a position of power. A wholesale transformation of that culture and the economic system it upholds is the only way to prevent new Johnsons from beating a path to the very top.