As the UK stands on the edge of a cliff, former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall assesses what the boy who wanted to be ‘world king’ achieved when he fulfilled his relentless ambition

I was recently asked to take part in a debate on a news programme on Boris Johnson’s legacy. My immediate reaction was to wonder ‘legacy, what legacy?’ The only legacy Johnson has left behind is a toxic one – a divided society, tarnished political institutions, a cratering economy, and a much damaged international reputation. 

Most political careers end in failure. Few leaders, apart from those on term limits such as US presidents, get to choose the manner or time of their departure. They are usually ousted after losing an election, being overthrown in a coup, or embroiled in a scandal. Even those that do, such as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have their record examined and are often found wanting in hindsight. 

But Boris Johnson departs on an unusually low note.

Ousted by his own party, less than three years after leading it to a historic victory at the polls, which looked set to guarantee a political majority for the Conservatives for many years to come. Though some party members now appear to regret his ejection, the damage he has done to its reputation is profound; and Labour, especially if it forms an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats, now has a real chance of winning the next general election. 

Johnson was entirely the architect of his own downfall.

Fittingly, for a man known to be a serial adulterer and compulsive liar, he was ousted – not because of some major policy failure, but for his mishandling of sleazy scandals such as the Owen Patterson and Chris Pincher affairs, and lying over the ‘Partygate’ scandal.

Finally, even his own colleagues got fed up of trying to cover for him, while his story changed every week. Enough of them eventually found some spine – or became sufficiently worried about their own political fortunes – to vote for a change of leader. 

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But he presided over plenty of substantive political failures – most glaringly, Brexit, the issue most associated with his name, and which he and his supporters like to claim as his biggest achievement.

It is true that he succeeded in wresting the UK out of the EU and, in that sense, he did ‘deliver’ Brexit. But the birthing pains were acute, our political system, economy and international reputation were severely damaged in the process, and we are still wrangling with the EU over some of the details. We are going to be paying the costs of his Brexit for many years to come. 

Another claim is that he got all the ‘big calls right’ on the pandemic. The Government’s proactive backing of several different vaccines in development certainly helped get us out in front of the curve in terms of finding a vaccine that worked. The initial roll-out went well, helped by thousands of volunteers, and the booster campaign late last year was also impressive.

Nevertheless, the UK’s high Coronavirus death toll and exhausted NHS tells its own story. Whether you were for or against extended lockdowns, it is hard to dispute that Johnson was slow to react to the gravity of the situation when the virus first hit our shores, and also hesitated dangerously during subsequent spikes in infections. 

As for the economy, this is how a presenter at a right-leaning think tank in Washington summed up the current state of the British economy to visiting UK Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi:

“I think we can say the UK is in a dire economic situation, that is the word I would use. In its monetary policy report last month, the Bank of England had a very pessimistic report: in June, UK prices had risen by 9.4% on an annual rate. The Bank of England forecast that UK prices will hit a hit 13% annual rate by end 2022, and will stay above the 2% target for at least a year. The Bank forecast a recession beginning in the fourth quarter of this year, and is forecasting five consecutive  quarters of contraction, followed by a period of zero percent growth. Private sector forecasts are even more pessimistic – some are finding that UK inflation will hit 18%, 20% 22% on an annual basis. 

“The pound fell 4.5 cents against the dollar in August, the biggest monthly drop in six years, and declined almost 3% against the euro – an indication that international currency markets have a deteriorating outlook for Britain’s economy.

“The Resolution Foundation, a UK think tank, predicts real household income will fall by 10% by the end of next year, and that the number of people living in poverty will rise by three million. The think tank says that the next prime minister will face ‘the deepest living standards squeeze in a century’.

“The Office of Gas and Electrical Markets announced that households would see an increase from about £2,000 to £3,500 per year in October for a typical household. That is a massive increase. Some analysts think this could rise to as much as £7,000, an increase of more than a factor of three.

“[But] Liz Truss, the frontrunner, says recession is not inevitable in the face of all this.” 

I have nothing to add to that.

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The main area where I believe Boris Johnson can genuinely claim some credit is over Ukraine – where he recognised early on the strategic significance of Russia’s unprovoked invasion, and was proactive and strong in providing military, political and economic support to Ukraine.

Though many questioned his motives, his flying visit to Kyiv in April was both bold and brave, given that Kyiv was still under sustained attack. It was a genuine shot in the arm for Ukrainian morale. 

Yet, even as he urges the world to stay the course in support of Ukraine, he has been pursuing policies at home which undermine our international standing, and risk weakening the alliance.

The proposal to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda is legally questionable and morally abhorrent.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is an active derogation of the commitments he signed with the EU, giving the lie to his claim to have ‘got Brexit done’. If his successor rams the Bill through, the country faces the prospect of further instability in Northern Ireland, a retaliatory trade war with the EU, and friction with our partners on Ukraine. 

The ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme is paltry in comparison with the numbers of Ukrainians many other, smaller or poorer, countries in Europe have taken in. It is now struggling to rehouse thousands of Ukrainians whose original six-month stay with UK hosts has not been extended.

Some Ukrainians even worry that, if public opinion begins to sour on their presence in the UK, they will end up being sent to Rwanda as well. 

Though Johnson lauds Ukraine for fighting for its freedom, he has also been busy eroding freedoms in the UK – from kicking out of his party those who dared to challenge him; limiting the rights of public protest; eroding the powers of the Electoral Commission; circumscribing the powers of judicial review; and threatening to stack the House of Lords with more Conservative appointees, as a reward for favours given, or in return for future support. As with everything to do with Johnson, it is ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

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In recent weeks, the challenges facing the UK have dramatically escalated. Our economy is tanking. Fuel prices are soaring. Our beaches are soiled. Our public services are overwhelmed. Our NHS is in crisis. Our courts are backlogged. Businesses are struggling. Our transport system is gridlocked. Strike action is mounting. 

It is fair to say that not every problem is directly his fault. Neither the pandemic nor the Ukraine crisis could have been predicted – and they have presented challenges for every country. But a leader is judged not by the scenarios he wishes he could have faced, but by the crises he actually has had to face. By almost every measure, the UK is in a worse state today, than it was when Boris Johnson came into office.

Yet, he has not spent his last few weeks as Prime Minister urgently trying to deal with these problems and shore up his so-called ‘legacy’. Rather, he has been on holiday, celebrated his wedding, flown in a fighter plane, posed in a hard hat, made a last flying visit to Kyiv, given a series of farewell speeches praising himself, and enjoyed the pleasures of Chequers. 

Perhaps his very last, poisonous, legacy to the nation is that his successor does not look capable of clearing up the mess he created. Unless an early general election is called, the nation is doomed to limp on under his toxic shadow for at least two more years.  

I am not sorry to see him go. I wish him well in retirement, but I sincerely hope he stays there. He has left enough of a legacy for this country already.

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity

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