LONDON – The moving vans have already started arriving at Downing Street as Britain’s Conservative Party prepares to evict Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The debate over what mark he left on his party, his country and the world will linger long after he departs in September — if, indeed, he really is gone for good.
Johnson led Britain out of the European Union and won a landslide election victory before his government collapsed in a heap of ethics scandals. During his final appearance in Parliament as prime minister in July, he summed up his three years in office as: “Mission largely accomplished.”
Many political historians take a harsher view.
“Winston Churchill said that ‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,’” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “I’m pretty sure Johnson does too, but I doubt he’ll find it’s as kind to him as it was to his hero.”
Johnson cultivated a buffoonish public image, but he has had a serious impact on his country. He bears much of the credit, or blame, for Britain’s departure from the EU, a momentous decision whose consequences will play out for years.
“The one certain thing you can say is that his legacy is Brexit,” said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “You can’t take that away from him — it’s just a question of whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
Johnson’s backing for the “leave” campaign in Britain's 2016 referendum on EU membership was vital to its victory. He had a popular appeal that no other campaigner could match. When wrangling in Parliament over the departure terms brought down Prime Minister Theresa May three years later, Johnson succeeded her with a vow to “get Brexit done.”
He led the Conservatives to a huge election victory in 2019 and took Britain out of the EU the following year. But the long divorce feels far from “done.” Relations with the EU have soured amid unresolved disputes over trade rules for Northern Ireland.
New customs and regulatory barriers are also hindering trade between Britain and the 27 EU nations. The benefits of Brexit touted by Johnson and other supporters — a chance to rip up onerous EU rules and create a more dynamic economy — have not yet materialized.
Johnson’s promises to redistribute investment and opportunity to neglected regions of Britain also remain unfulfilled. His successor — either Foreign Secretary Liz Truss or former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak, who are competing in a Conservative Party leadership contest whose outcome will be announced Sept. 5 — inherits a deflating economy and a cost-of-living crisis sparked by such factors as Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Margaret MacMillan, emeritus professor of international history at Oxford University, said Johnson has left the United Kingdom weakened both economically and constitutionally.
“The Union is weaker, the status and future of Northern Ireland in question, and relations with the EU, which is still Britain’s major trading partner, (are) no better, if not worse, than when he became prime minister,” she said.
The other defining event of his premiership was COVID-19, which landed Johnson in intensive care in April 2020 and has left more than 180,000 people in Britain dead.
Johnson hesitated before imposing a nationwide lockdown in March 2020; experts later said acting a week earlier would have saved thousands of lives. Britain went on to have three long lockdowns, a deep economic slump and one of the highest death tolls in Europe. But the U.K.’s vaccine program, led by a task force of scientists and businesspeople, is widely regarded as a major success.
Victoria Honeyman, associate professor of British politics at the University of Leeds, said the verdict on Johnson’s pandemic record is in the eye of the beholder.
“His supporters would argue that his actions were beneficial and justified," she said, “while his critics would argue that the actions were the bare minimum.”
Apart from Brexit, Johnson’s main international cause has been Ukraine. He has been one of the most prominent allies of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Britain has backed up the rhetoric with billions in military and humanitarian aid to help the country resist Russia’s invasion. The support has made Johnson a popular figure in Ukraine, though critics say any other British leader would have followed the same policy.
Johnson’s domestic policy achievements were few. His administration was chaotic, wracked by factionalism and constantly in crisis mode, as a lifelong record of bending and breaking rules finally caught up with him.
He brazened out public anger at lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street during the pandemic, for which he was fined by police. But his appointment to a key job of a politician who had been accused of sexual misconduct proved a scandal too far for Conservative lawmakers, who forced him out.
Critics said it was a long-overdue comeuppance for a politician who debased British politics with his populist disregard for ethics and the truth.
“The tragedy is that whoever replaces Johnson will inevitably be someone who tolerated his mendacity, corruption and incompetence for years,” Cambridge University history professor Richard Evans wrote in the New Statesman. “The mess Boris Johnson has left behind will take a long time to clear up.”
But another Cambridge historian, Robert Tombs, said Johnson might one day be seen as “a much underrated politician” -- especially if he publishes his own account of his time in office.
“The overriding theme will be that, though afflicted with human frailties, he was right when it mattered,” Tombs wrote on the Spiked website.
Johnson, 58, has tried to sound philosophical about his exit. “Them’s the breaks,” he said with a shrug as he announced his resignation on July 7. But he has made clear that he does not want to leave, blaming a “herd” mentality among Conservative colleagues for the “eccentric” decision to oust him.
He remains a member of Parliament, and some Conservatives believe he could try to return as leader if his successor falters.
Fielding said such a comeback would be almost unprecedented in British history.
“You’d think in a sane and rational political culture that would be impossible,” he said. “But that’s not what Britain is at the moment.”