Boris Johnson’s legacy? It is complicated
Luke Reader is a lecturer in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University. He researches modern British history with a focus on internationalism and the Labor Party of the interwar period. You can follow Luke Reader on Twitter @WritesReader .
Boris Johnson signs the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement on January 24, 2020
As Boris Johnson emerges in disarray from 10 Downing St., it is reasonable to wonder what legacy this historically-minded Prime Minister leaves for posterity.
It is easy to point to the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis threatened by rising energy prices and the looming prospect of inflation or, more positively, Britain’s efforts to support the Ukrainian struggle against Russian aggression. But is this list a legacy, or does it simply list the bac Johnson left to his successor, Liz Truss?
It is the intangible aspects of Johnson’s Downing St. tenure that provide a more enduring legacy. One in particular stands out: the Johnson administration’s three-year stress test of Britain’s uncodified constitution.
The British constitution is a complicated beast. It has no ur-text or guidance document. Instead, it relies on precedent, whether set by statute or convention. As a result, Britain relies on what historian Peter Hennessey calls the “good guy” theory of government. This premise rests on the assumption that each new government will abide by the conventions, norms and unspoken agreements that have guided previous administrations.
But what happens when a new Prime Minister is, for lack of a better word, a boor?
Johnson began his term as prime minister by suspending parliament for five weeks. This measure, known as prorogation, bridges the few days between the end of one parliamentary session and the start of another. However, the length of the 2019 extension has alarmed many. The Johnson administration said it needed time to introduce a new legislative agenda. MPs were skeptical and worried that Johnson was trying to limit scrutiny of Brexit-related legislation. The Supreme Court agreed, ruling the extension illegal.
Hannah White, acting director of the Institute for Government, an influential nonpartisan think tank, argues that this attempt to delegitimize parliamentary oversight was the most important aspect of the Johnson administration. Since 2019, ministers have rushed to pass laws, refused amendments and failed to give House of Commons committees enough time to assess the impact and constitutionality of bills passed by Parliament . The result, as White explains, has been the continued strengthening of the executive and the simultaneous weakening of parliamentary checks and balances provided for by the constitution.
Traditional norms and behaviors did not trouble the Johnson administration. Johnson’s view of his premiership as a personal term that expresses the “will of the people” does not match the reality that prime ministers are appointed, not elected. The former Prime Minister misled Parliament on at least 27 occasions and is still under investigation for lying about hosting parties in Downing St. during lockdown. Johnson resigned following another episode of misdirection, this time over his knowledge of sexual assault allegations against a former deputy chief whip.
So what is the problem? Politicians lie. The British system held firm. Johnson did not attempt to avoid his fate by dissolving parliament and calling a general election. His own Tory MPs ousted him from power. Once he lost power, Johnson did not incite insurrection either. Hordes of Johnson supporters restrained themselves from rampaging through the halls of parliament.
Nevertheless, the precedent set by Johnson is dangerous. His premiership not only eroded the “good guy” theory of government. It has also pushed the boundaries of acceptable political behavior, meaning that actions once considered inadmissible are now potentially available to future prime ministers.
Brexit, the political project that brought Johnson to power in the first place, also contains a set of constitutional implications.
Whether one likes Brexit or not – personally, I deplore it – withdrawal from the European Union has returned Britain to a sense of constitutional symmetry. Like Helen Thompson, political scientist and former host of the Talking politics podcast points out, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty anchors the British political system. Unfortunately, this ideal is incompatible with membership of the European Union, which gives priority to the EU rather than to national law. Indeed, Brexit healed a constitutional rift created when Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973.
But as one breach closes, another emerges. In his book How Britain Ends (2021) Gavin Esler, former BBC political editor, argues that Brexit accelerated the breakdown of national unity and purpose. Many people in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who voted to remain in the EU by considerable margins, resent being driven out of Europe by expressions of English nationalism. In response, the Scottish government demanded a second independence referendum. In Northern Ireland, tensions around Brexit have reignited fears of terrorism. Even in England, Remain and Leave, the political identities that emerged in the 2016 referendum, continue to hold sway.
It is perhaps premature to talk about Johnson’s legacy. In his last speech as prime minister, Johnson expressed his desire to follow the example of Cincinnatus, a Roman statesman who was appointed dictator by the Senate in 458 BCE. Cincinnatus successfully fought off an invasion of the Aequi, a neighboring Italian people, before immediately retreating to his farm. Twenty years later, Cincinnatus performed a similar action, crushing a plebeian revolt before once again retreating to his farm. What exactly is the former prime minister trying to tell us?