The establishment outsider: Boris Johnson's legacy


As Liz Truss's Britain begins to take shape, how will her predecessor be remembered?

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Image by Andrew Parsons

By Aidan Riley

As Johnson’s short yet tumultuous stint as Britain’s Prime Minister draws to a close, it proves rather difficult to grasp what the public opinion of his legacy is. Some see him as the hero of Brexit, who steered the nation through the pandemic, but was ultimately, like many of his beloved Greek heroes, betrayed by his own. To this group, Johnson did little wrong: it was only Rishi Sunak’s self-interest that forced Johnson from the job, two years early. The rest of us see him as a bumbling, burbling buffoon who could lie for England, and quite literally did.

Johnson may appear to many as the archetypal Conservative Prime Minister – white, upper class and privately educated. A scholarship at Eton followed by Classics at Oxford in 1983, Johnson finds himself in a generation of Oxford graduates who have gone on to dominate the Conservative Party, and in recent years, British politics. Though he may appear as the classic establishment figure, Johnson was different. Born in New York, he moved house thirty-two times across two continents before he was fourteen. With lineage from France, Germany and Turkey, Boris arrived in Britain as an outsider. It was this sense of unbelonging upon arrival to Eton that began to shape the Johnson we know today. Alexander, his given name, became Boris. It is this dichotomy, between establishment figure and outsider, that conjured in Johnson a feeling of superiority, a belief that he should be exempt from the network of obligation that bound his peers, a remark made by his former Classics Master at Eton. This feeling likely stuck with Johnson throughout his career: he isn’t the typical Etonian politician, but exotic, eccentric, and unique.

Johnson encompassed these adjectives most accurately during his time as London’s Mayor, from 2008 to 2016. To my politically naïve, preadolescent mind, I would likely have described Boris Johnson as jovial and clown-like, more Mr Tumble than Mr Mayor. Bendy buses were banished but ‘’Boris bikes’’ blossomed. The continued coining of the capital’s cycle scheme in his name is testament to probably his most famous legacy as mayor. Johnson will be thankful for the public’s short memory. His time as Mayor of London was littered with costly misjudgements and overambitious spending. The aforementioned bendy buses were replaced with ultra-modern and environmentally friendly hybrid New Routemaster buses. Problems ensued, and not cheap ones. £2m had to be found to retrofit the buses with opening windows, after frequent air conditioning failures left the capital’s commuters sweltering. Johnson also oversaw the opening of the London cable car, at an ultimate cost to taxpayers of over £24m. A report in 2013 following the London Olympics revealed that the service was frequently used by a total of four commuters.

The trajectory of Johnson’s time as Prime Minister bears remarkable resemblance to that of his predecessor, Theresa May. A slow start, followed by a rather rapid downfall, and finally, forced resignation. Both ultimately failed in their jobs, scraping through votes of no confidence but eventually jumping before they were pushed by increasingly hostile Conservative MPs. Johnson’s demise feels different though, more extreme, more final. According to political scientist Anand Menon, this is because “he had further to fall.’’ Johnson spoke of serving three terms, serving well into the 2030s, continuing to shape Boris’s Britain. He wanted his legacy to be Churchillian, immortalised in both bronze and memory. Johnson started well. He maintained his pledge to “get Brexit done,” embarrassing his predecessor. Then, it all began to unravel for Johnson. Flagrant breaching of his own lockdown laws and incessant lies in Parliament when accusations began to grow. A vote of confidence was survived, by-elections were lost, the Pincher scandal emerged, more lies from Johnson, and finally mass government resignations led to his own. We should have seen this coming though. Johnson was sacked in 1988 by the Times for making up a cover story. He was sacked again in 2004 by Lord Michael Howard for publicly lying about an affair with a colleague. Johnson lies with such ease that he seems often to convince himself.

Where next for Johnson then? Turning to his predecessors offers us little clue, though it does make clear some of his options. He may follow Mrs May, continuing as a backbencher and a thorn in the new government's side. Alternatively, he could follow Cameron and Clegg, cashing in, perhaps returning to journalism. Potential salaries would likely feature in the millions. There is little doubt that there would be demand for Johnson’s public speaking ability. He is an undoubtedly excellent orator: his recent tribute to Her Late Majesty was in stark contrast to that of his successor, whose public speaking has been criticised as one of the new Prime Minister’s early weaknesses. Really then, the true victim of Johnson’s premiership is not himself, but the Conservative Party. In one term, the largest Conservative majority in 32 years has been squandered. Current polling suggests the Conservatives would have just a four percent chance of winning a majority if an election was held tomorrow.

Johnson consistently likened himself to the great Greeks and Romans, Prometheus, or later Cincinnatus, who returned for a second rule. But which Roman emperor is the former Prime Minister most like? Clearly Nero. Much like Johnson, Nero knew his time was up when he called for his staff but received only a deafening silence in reply that spoke volumes. It comes as little surprise that he is yet to draw this comparison himself.