CHENNAI: The swift, stinging downfall of Boris Johnson this past week removes a uniquely polarising figure from British politics. But it does not remove the divisive issues that Johnson confronted — and in many cases, exploited — as he engineered Britain’s departure from the European Union two and a half years ago. Johnson’s legacy, and that of Brexit, are inseparable. Britons will be wrestling with the fallout from his signature project long after their flamboyant prime minister decamps Downing Street, taking with him his heedless disregard for the rules, checkered ethical history and slapdash personal style.
From Britain’s poisoned relationship with France to its clash with Brussels over trade in Northern Ireland, Brexit-related issues will loom large in the campaign to replace Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party and, hence, prime minister. They could well define the next occupant of Downing Street, the fourth prime minister since Britain voted to leave in 2016. Narrowing the divide between Britain’s wealthy south and poorer north — Johnson’s marquee post-Brexit initiative — is major unfinished business. Even broader economic problems, like surging inflation and a looming recession, have a Brexit component, insofar as Britain’s divorce from Brussels has aggravated its woes.
Beyond that, Johnson’s successor will have to reckon with the corrosive effect that Brexit has had on British politics, whether in the charged debates over social and cultural issues, or in the strains on institutions like Parliament and the Civil Service. Johnson, with his populist instincts, stoked those sentiments.
Throwing out his playbook would not be easy for any future Conservative leader. “What Boris Johnson did was show how the system can be exploited,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London. “Given the nature of the Conservative Party, I assume there’s not going to be much softening of its position on many of these issues.” Even Jeremy Hunt, a middle-of-the-road figure who is likely to run for party leader, said recently he would favor ripping up parts of Britain’s agreement with the European Union that sets trade regulations in Northern Ireland. Johnson’s threat to do that provoked outrage in Brussels, which accused him of violating international law.
Hunt, who challenged Johnson for the leadership unsuccessfully in 2019, voted for Britain to stay in the European Union. But like Johnson, his fortunes will depend in part on support from the Conservative Party’s right flank, which pushed relentlessly for the most uncompromising form of Brexit. Another likely candidate, Liz Truss, Johnson’s foreign secretary, is spearheading the aggressive approach on Northern Ireland. She is reported to have recruited an influential group of Brexiteers to vet legislation that would allow Britain to renege on parts of the agreement with Brussels before introducing it in Parliament.
Nor will the leadership campaign lack for culture warriors. Suella Braverman, who currently serves as attorney general, declared herself a candidate on ITV last week by vowing to crack down on migrants illegally crossing the English Channel, one of several positions that echo those of Johnson.
“We need to get rid of all of this woke rubbish,” Braverman added, “and actually get back to a country, where describing a man and a woman in terms of biology does not mean that you are going to lose your job.”
The political forces that fuelled Brexit — voter disengagement, economic grievances, distrust of politicians — predated Johnson, much as similar forces predated Donald J. Trump in the United States. How much each leader was a catalyst for events or merely a symptom of them will be long debated in both countries.
And just as the United States is still dealing with the charged issues that catapulted Trump into office, analysts said British politics would continue to be dominated by hot-button topics — from immigration to economic equity between England’s north and south — that were litigated in the Brexit debate. “We are still in the relatively early stages of living with the consequences of Brexit,” said Simon Fraser, a former head of Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “Brexit is going to continue to devour its children.”
Those running to replace Johnson, Fraser said, have little incentive to soften his hard-line positions on Brexit-related issues because they will be selected by the Conservative Party’s lawmakers and rank-and-file members, for whom Johnson’s Brexit policy was perhaps the greatest success of his tenure. Johnson stitched together a potent but unwieldy coalition to win a landslide general election victory in 2019. It consisted of traditional Tory voters in the country’s south, as well as working-class voters in the industrial north, who had historically voted for the Labour Party but defected to the Conservatives in part because of Johnson’s vow to “Get Brexit Done.”
“Boris Johnson was able to move into that space, partly by dint of personality, partly by his complete absence of a political philosophy,” Menon said. Without Johnson’s protean appeal to those voters, he added, social and cultural issues are “the only glue that holds it together.”
With Johnson vowing to stay in Downing Street until the Conservatives select a new leader — a process that could take until the early fall — it is too soon to judge whether he will have a lingering impact on British politics after he is no longer prime minister. Some of that will depend on whether he opts to stay in Parliament, where he could easily vex his successor from the backbenches.
For all his precedent-shattering, norm-busting ways, Johnson’s denouement was oddly in keeping with custom, if with a typically dramatic flourish. His cabinet abandoned him, much as members of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet abandoned her in November 1990, forcing her to yield to the inevitable and step down. None of this is to diminish Johnson’s place in history, which even his harshest critics say will be consequential.
“Without Boris Johnson, we might not have had Brexit,” said Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at Oxford University. “Without Boris Johnson, we wouldn’t have a hard Brexit because he personally gave us that. Without Boris Johnson, we wouldn’t have had the disastrous decline in standards in British public life.”
Mark Landler is the London bureau chief with NYT©2022
The New York Times