Brexit, Partygate, lying? What is Boris Johnson’s legacy as prime minister?
Will Boris Johnson’s reign as prime minister be remembered for Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, an attack on human rights or Partygate? We take a quick look at what he will leave behind.
by: Sam Gelder, Liam Geraghty, Isabella McRae and Greg Barradale
8 Jul 2022
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes his resignation statement outside Number 10 Downing Street. Image: Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street
As a prime minister who has written a book about Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson will have been desperate to leave his own lasting legacy. And to be fair, he has. But it’s probably not the one he had in mind.
During his resignation speech, Johnson ran through a list of what he considers his greatest achievements.
“I, of course, am immensely proud of the achievements of this government,” he said. “From getting Brexit done to settling our relations with the continent for over half a century, reclaiming the power for this country to make it’s own laws in parliament, getting us all through the pandemic, delivering the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, delivering the fastest exit from lockdown, and in the last few months leading the West in standing up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.”
But here’s a quick look at what he’ll actually be remembered for.
This, as the first achievement he touched on in his speech, is clearly what he wanted his legacy to be. The great leader who rescued the country from Brussels bureaucrats. He did, in his own words, “get Brexit done” – after all, that’s completely sorted now. But within weeks of the UK leaving the EU on January 31 2020, the pandemic hit and the PM and his cabinet of Brexit die-hards had to put down the bunting and deal with a global pandemic instead. He’ll be gone before we’ve even had the Brexit Festival.
The Covid-19 pandemic
Johnson has overseen one of the highest Covid death tolls in the world. The UK currently has the seventh most deaths of any country with, as of the day he resigned, 180,718.
He does, however, have the speedy vaccine roll-out to his name, as he mentioned in his resignation speech. And the world-beating NHS Test and Trace app.
But there’s also the care home scandal from the early days of the pandemic, which saw about 25,000 patients discharged from hospitals into care homes before testing was made mandatory. NHS England told hospitals in mid-March 2020 to free up 15,000 beds by discharging Covid patients. Compulsory tests for people being discharged were not introduced until mid-April.
Some 39,017 people died in care homes in England in the year from 10 April 2020 to 31 March 2021, according to the Care Quality Commission (CQC).
Then there are the allegations that in September 2020 – as England went into its second lockdown – Johnson said he would rather see “bodies pile high” than take the country into a third.
He also stood by Dominic Cummings during the infamous Barnard Castle saga during the first lockdown, which did not go down well with the public or parliament.
For many, this will be the one that sticks. It’s the scandal that sparked his downfall, beginning at the end of 2021 when details emerged of parties at Downing Street during Covid lockdowns. As thousands of people across the country obeyed the rules and missed out on saying goodbye to dying loved ones, missing funerals, birthdays and other important life events, Downing Street was enjoying Wine Time Fridays with suitcases full of booze.
A report by civil servant Sue Gray detailed “excessive drinking”, people vomiting, fighting and cover-ups. In a damning conclusion, Gray wrote: “The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”
Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie, and Rishi Sunak all received fines. In doing so, Johnson became the first sitting prime minister to break the law. Now that’s a legacy.
The Christopher Pincher scandal
This was the scandal that pushed the Tory party over the edge, including swathes of Johnson loyalists.
When Christopher Pincher offered his infamous “I drank far too much” resignation letter a week ago it wasn’t immediately clear that it would snowball into a scandal that would bring down the government.
But the ever-increasing allegations against the Tamworth MP, who has had the whip withdrawn but is currently still in place as an independent, and Johnson’s handling of the affair has called into question the PM’s honesty and integrity.
It’s a good phrase, but he’ll mostly be associated with it because neither he nor his ministers have been able to sum up what it actually means. At least not in one sentence.
Johnson has consistently promised to “unite and level up” the country. In his buoyant first speech in December 2019, the prime minister crowed: “If you ask yourselves what is this new government going to do, what is he going to do with his extraordinary majority, I will tell you that is what we are going to do. We are going to unite and level up – unite and level up.”
He gushed that the Tories would bring together “the whole of this incredible United Kingdom” and unleash the “potential of the whole country delivering opportunity across the entire nation”.
It is a great theory. But even when the levelling up white paper was finally published over two years later, people weren’t really sure what it meant.
The other sticking point is that the government is a long way off from making levelling up a reality. Researchers recently claimed the government will need to invest billions of pounds more than expected in its plans for them to work. If it does happen in any meaningful way, there will be another prime minister taking credit for it.
A move towards authoritarianism
Johnson has long been portrayed as a deep-down liberal with a canny knack for playing to the right-wing die-hards that sustained his power.
And deep-down liberal or not, his legislation reflected a move towards authoritarianism, with key parts of his agenda drawing alarm from campaigners for stripping away human rights.
In the face of forceful objection from the House of Lords, his administration showed little willingness to meaningfully water those plans down.
Even bits that were thrown out – such as criminalising certain protest tactics like “locking on” – have been re-introduced as part of the Policing Bill.
He’s been accused of creating a “two-tier asylum system” with the Nationality and Borders Act, which in the words of the United Nations’ Refugee Agency “undermines established international refugee protection law”. It means some refugees now have more rights than others, based on how they entered the UK. The act also gives the government the power to strip a person’s citizenship without notifying them, while his Elections Act means voters will have to show photo ID at polling stations.
Billed as means of cracking down on environmental protesters and illegal immigration, these laws also allowed his government to pick fights with “lefty lawyers” fighting deportations.
But beyond rhetoric and fiery front pages, the laws represented a significant shift. Johnson may not have been in office for long, but he leaves with the public’s rights and freedoms weaker than when he entered.
Tory MPs were ordered to vote against a 30-day suspension for the then-North Shropshire MP, who was found to have lobbied on behalf of two private firms, before a huge backlash prompted a U-turn and a resignation from Paterson.
Labour leader Keir Starmer labelled Johnson’s antics a “grubby attempt to cover up for the misdemeanour of his friend”.
Then there was “wallpaper-gate”: a £208,000 makeover of the flat above No.11, including wallpaper at £225 per roll.
Johnson assumed a charitable trust would pay for the work but when that didn’t happen Lord David Brownlow – a Tory donor – paid instead.
The PM claimed he had no knowledge of the arrangement but messages surfaced revealing he had asked him, and also promised to look at Brownlow’s idea of a second Great Exhibition. Eventually Johnson settled the bill himself but the Tories were fined £18,000 for not following the rules.
And a “VIP lane” for handing out PPE contracts to two firms during the pandemic was ruled unlawful by the High Court. Many of the contracts handed out were to companies with links to MPs.
And his resignation didn’t stop the allegations. Hours after his speech outside Downing Street, The Mirror reported that Johnson was so desperate to hang-on until the autumn because he and Carrie had already sent out invitations for a lavish wedding party at Chequers later this month. The venue has since been moved.