The manner of Boris Johnson’s departure has led to a missed opportunity to clean up politics. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
The fall of Boris Johnson brings to an end a long career of being a clever old Etonian and a riotous old Oxonian. With all the breaks in life, mixed in with a devilish sense of humour and a disregard for rules, he filled a gap in politics that needed filling.
Like Thatcher he was destroyed by his party and could not stay on. His end came about because of the disloyalty of his former allies. He promoted Rishi Sunak up the government ladder and eventually Sunak turned against him. Which makes it obvious that politics and betrayal go hand in hand.
And Thatcher’s fall was from such commanding heights. She had broken the organised working class but could not handle a strange alliance that stretched from punks to pensioners. She closed down all the major industries and even closed the often-appalling psychiatric hospitals, replacing them with nothing.
You can fight and argue over Thatcher’s legacy, but Johnson’s is different. To some he doesn’t seem to have a legacy. Possibly ‘getting Brexit done’ was the nearest he came to one, but like Thatcher’s closing of the mines, steel and heavy engineering, it left a bitter taste in many a mouth.
But it was staggering to see Johnson reduce the calm and seasoned politician Ken Livingstone, that great spouter of statistics, to nothing. Johnson did it by bluff, humour and charm – if you can call it that – and by a complete disregard for the script. His campaign to become mayor of London and see off the reining incumbent Livingstone was a lesson in personality over delivery.
For many, the slightly comic and irreverent old toff that Johnson played seemed preferable to the seasoned stats-laden usual politician. People were looking for a change and because we hadn’t had a comic toff in such a while Johnson swept in.
But it was Brexit that made it for him, which he realised when he went from pro to anti-Europe almost overnight. He recognised this as quite a firm base on which to build his grasp of power. Without the period as a jolly mayor of London he would not have gained name recognition. He was a relatively little-known constituency MP until the mayor’s job came along. And from then on, via the Brexit platform, he charmed his way into prominence.
I met so many working people who loved what he gave, which was entertainment and a sense that he was not the usual politician. Johnson could almost divide the country into those fiercely for or against him.
Yet to me, he was brought down for the wrong reasons. The greatest political crime he could be accused of was surely the carve up that insider dealing allowed, where mates of the powerful got to bid for the mountain of Covid cash.
Extraordinary, then, that Johnson was not arraigned for allowing the old boys’ network to profit from Covid contracts. That for me was the biggest potential rallying point for a reinvention of the integrity of politics.
The thriving of chumocracy in so many ways under Johnson could be his lasting legacy. But if it was demonstrated in how blasé a manner all these money-making contracts were nodded through, then it could lay the foundation stones for a cleaned-up politics.
Imagine a new political guideline that said that you could not make money out of public office. Or you could not go from a cash-strapped party leader to a multimillionaire once no longer in government.
The need to bring Johnson down over the Partygate fiasco does not sharpen the debate about new politics. It’s about lying and cover up, which unfortunately governments are notorious for. They are notorious also for looking after their insiders, but the Covid money mountain was unequalled since the Second World War.
The vast wealth it could generate for companies and shareholders, on the back of a health crisis, should have been policed against corruption. Politicians and ex-politicians getting involved in the gravy train of government contracts is one of the biggest areas of concern today.
Will we have all of this dirty laundry from the days of Johnson properly exposed? Or will he only be remembered as the man who lied to Parliament about his partying when the rest of us were locked down?
Contradictorily, Johnson did at times look as if he was the leader for Covid times. Pushing through support for business so that bounce-back loans and furlough schemes meant unemployment did not skyrocket. It wasn’t plain sailing, and in many ways we are still looking at the torment thrown up by the pandemic, but Johnson did not scrimp to help keep the show on the road. And that is a saving grace.
Not dissimilar in ways to Churchill, who Johnson saw himself as a later expression of. Who achieved an end to the war but often by nefarious methods and, at times, a lack of truth. And Churchill was no enemy of chumocracy and the deals that did his kind well.
Johnson talks about rising again. But it would have to be a comeback that was not so soaked in the old boys’ network.
John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.