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The true legacy of Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson’s premiership serves as a warning to Rishi Sunak and any future prime minister.

Boris Johnson looking concerned at a Downing Street press conference.
Boris Johnson’s premiership should always serve as a reminder of – and a warning about – what it actually means to be a prime minister.

Out of No.10, no longer an MP, and denied a pass to parliament, Boris Johnson’s fall from power has been as dramatic as his style of leadership was chaotic – and serves as a warning to Rishi Sunak and any future prime minister, writes Hannah White. 

Over the coming days, weeks, months and years, Boris Johnson’s sympathetic biographers, and his allies in parliament and the press, will be determined to shape the former prime minister’s legacy. No doubt Johnson will do the same, inspired perhaps by his hero Winston Churchill’s assertion that “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” The focus of this rose-tinted account is easy to predict: the impressive speed of the UK’s vaccine roll-out, Johnson's global leadership following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the 80-seat majority he won at the 2019 general election.  

But future prime ministers, including the current occupant of No.0, would be wiser to focus on a different aspect of Johnson’s legacy – one which Johnson himself would probably consider to be a distraction, an irrelevance, or simply rather dull. More than anything he achieved in office, Johnson’s premiership should always serve as a reminder of – and a warning about – what it actually means to be a prime minister, to be in charge of No.10, to choose a cabinet, and to run a government. 

1. Prime ministers must govern, not just campaign  

Johnson entered No.10 as a successful campaigner, having helped win both the 2016 EU referendum and the 2019 general election. But aside from delivering on his key manifesto promise of ‘getting Brexit done’ – at least in the sense of signing an agreement with the EU – he largely failed to convert his style from campaigning to governing.

Instead of getting to grips with the complexities of government, making use of its structures and processes and engaging in the hard slog of developing and implementing policies, Johnson preferred to prioritise message over execution. Announcing the existence of a fully formed answer to social care was easier than actually developing one. Claiming an ‘oven ready’ Brexit deal was preferable to admitting its substantial imperfections. To run government effectively, a prime minister must be capable of making the transition from campaigning to governing. 

2. Number 10 should compensate for, not magnify a prime minister’s flaws 

Civil servants often pride themselves on the flexibility of No.10, its ability to adapt to enable any incoming administration to deliver its objectives by bringing in the right personnel and setting up the right structures. But the Johnson premiership demonstrated the potential downside of this vaunted plasticity – that under an un-self-reflective prime minister whom the civil service finds itself unable to challenge, the centre may simply magnify a prime minister’s weaknesses rather than compensate for them.  

The pandemic posed novel challenges for the centre of government, but the ‘partygate’ scandal has cast light on the chaotic, court-like nature of Johnson’s No.10 during that period. Numerous No.10 resets following different scandals led to frequent churn of personnel and structural changes. Johnson himself reportedly admitted that he preferred to cultivate an atmosphere of chaos in which everyone had to turn to him for a lead. A successful prime minister should reflect on and set up the support he or she needs for the centre of government to work effectively, including by empowering the civil service to build and maintain administrative structures and ethical guardrails. 

3. Loyalty is not sufficient qualification for a cabinet appointment  

Under the UK's system of cabinet government, the prime minister does not have either the mandate or the unilateral powers of a president. Rather their ability to deliver his or her government’s priorities rests upon their choice of cabinet. In making appointments to his cabinet following the 2019 election, Johnson apparently prioritised personal loyalty to him and to the cause of Brexit – perhaps learning the wrong lesson from Theresa May's Brexit paralysis.

Many of his appointees were inexperienced, and it showed – for example, in education secretary Gavin Williamson’s hapless handling of school policies during the pandemic, foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s much criticised failure to grip the evacuation of Kabul, and Matt Hancock’s missteps during the pandemic. In the appointments Johnson made throughout his premiership, competence was not visibly rewarded – to the detriment of his ability to progress his agenda. For example, his decision to demonstrate political strength by punishing 21 Conservative MPs for opposing a no-deal Brexit prior to the 2019 election, significantly weakened the pool of talent available to him after the election.

When forming their cabinet, prime ministers should reward competence not just loyalty if they want to see their priorities delivered. 

4. Ethical leadership is about setting and enforcing rules 

It has often been said that Boris Johnson believes that the rules should not apply to him or his friends. This exceptionalist attitude appears to have been a key factor leading to his departure from the office of prime minister as his MPs tired of being asked to justify his attempts to gloss over the misdemeanours of MPs Owen Paterson and Chris Pincher. In contrast to most of the ‘good chaps’ who went before him, Johnson preferred to ask not "what are the principles that should guide my judgment?" but "where is the rule that tells me I can’t…?" He was then prepared to test the limits of any rules or conventions that had previously been seen to bind the actions of previous prime ministers – whether over the advice of his independent adviser on ministerial interests, the prorogation of parliament, the applicability of international law or his appointment of peers to the House of Lords.  

The approach taken by Johnson unmoored the ethical compass of everyone in public life during the his premiership. Nobody could be sure whether the rules or processes apparently in place would actually be enforced in practice, or what the consequences of any breach would be. Arguably this contributed to the series of ethical scandals which have occurred in public life since 2019. Prime ministers should consider the ethical standards they want to be observed in public life during their premiership, and then model and enforce those standards.     

5. Used properly, institutions enhance rather than constrain government 

Boris Johnson’s actions often implied a frustration with institutions, including parliament, the courts and the civil service. His approach was to challenge and act to limit the independence and powers of institutions that he saw as thwarting his plans – rather than appreciating their value as the necessary foundations of effective government – delivering or feeding evidence into policy making and allowing for the testing of legal principles or political ideas.

For example, after frustration in government about the interventions of the Electoral Commission during and after the Brexit referendum, Johnson chose to legislate to constrain its independence – requiring it to follow a government strategy and policy statement outlining its electoral priorities. Similarly, after expressing frustration about the judgments of ‘activist judges’, his government chose to place limits on judicial review. Prior to and during his premiership, Johnson failed to defend the civil service against attacks from his ministers and other allies who sought to blame it for being part of a ‘blob’ set to thwart the government’s plans. This has contributed to an unprecedented breakdown in relations between the government and the civil service. And the Commons Privileges Committee has found that Johnson committed repeated contempts against parliament including impugning the committee itself after it found against him.

Prime ministers should appreciate the value to government of independent, expert institutions, and reflect on their contributions and challenges rather than simply giving way to frustration.     

No prime minister has approached the job of prime minister like Boris Johnson. Seemingly immune to political or personal embarrassment, Johnson’s style of communicating and campaigning brought new voters to the Conservatives while alienating many who had previously backed the party – and, ultimately, created a growing pile of under-delivered policies built on a habit of bombastic over-promising.  

Nor has any prime minister in living memory so frequently ignored rules and conventions, disregarded or attacked institutions, and chosen – or at least allowed – chaos above coherence at the heart of government.   

And no prime minister has ever left office, and then parliament, in the manner of Boris Johnson.   

Every future holder of the office will surely be determined to avoid repeating his mistakes – and be sure to approach the demands, challenges and expectations of the office of prime minister in a way which Johnson was either incapable of doing or chose to reject. His premiership serves as a warning to those that follow. That, above all else, is the true legacy of Boris Johnson. 

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