Liz Truss can’t escape Boris Johnson’s legacy

Comment

As Conservative Party members elevated Liz Truss as their new leader on Monday, the nostalgia for Boris Johnson is palpable – including from Boris Johnson himself. In his final speech from Downing Street on Tuesday morning, Johnson brushed off those who “changed the rules mid-term” in the race, before running through his greatest successes as prime minister, from Brexit to rolling out the vaccine.

There has been speculation that, like his hero Winston Churchill, Johnson may one day return from the desert. He does not dissuade himself from it, comparing himself (because a classical reference is never far from him) to Cincinnatus, the virtuous Roman consul, who may also be back in service.

But even though Johnson will never lead his party again, and despite pledging full support for the new government, little doubt he will cast a long shadow on the sidelines. This has made his legacy into contested territory. How this historic and often tumultuous period in power is perceived also defines the Conservative Party and post-Johnson era conservatism.

To his supporters (and Johnson doesn’t have so many supporters as he has sidekicks) he’s the savior who delivered Brexit and the Houdini who conjured up a whole new electoral coalition from swathes of the country who had voted Labor for 70 years. To his critics, he was the reckless driver who crashed out of the EU. His election became the source of a toothache, if not an even wider decadence in his party and in public debate.

His supporters may regret the messy personal life, the chaotic way of working, the propensity to say everything practical. But they see in him a unique political mind – instinctively charismatic, competitive, creative – and a politician who, wiser in three years as prime minister, might be capable of a comeback or at least have his say on the future of the party. They argue that he achieved the big things, but failed to surround himself with the right people and let an accumulation of mistakes, including tax hikes, sidetrack him. of its trajectory.

Polls, however, suggest that the general public has come to a very different conclusion. For most Britons it was a disappointment. Only 22% of Britons in the latest YouGov poll think he was either great or good; 55% think he was poor or terrible.

This is far from where it started. Johnson got early credit for completing Britain’s departure from the European Union and was rewarded with a massive majority in the 2019 election. He reshaped the Conservative voter base by speaking out about class people’s frustrations workers who were fed up with stagnating wages, the same way Donald Trump reshaped the Republican Party.

But he wasted no time in spending that credit. Radical promises have too often been followed by drama, the distraction of various scandals and problems with policy implementation. Serious problems, ranging from a creaky national health service and unfunded social care to problems with policing and public sector strikes, have spread without serious engagement.

Brexit and the politics it sparked represent such a historic pivot that it must be central to Johnson’s legacy. The initial impact was largely one of additional costs and friction. Relations with Europe are at their lowest. Those who argue that Brexit will provide long-term opportunities say they are waiting. Their hopes are partly pinned in the coming bonfire of regulations that Liz Truss has promised to unleash growth and innovation.

In other areas, there was a certain vision to note. The government policy paper released in February was a serious effort to address the underlying causes of income and opportunity disparities. But like Johnson’s pledge to close the Covid gap in education or his net zero pledge, his upgrade promises have never been given the resources to become a reality.

Where he delivered was for Ukraine. Johnson’s instinctive grasp of the geopolitical stakes in Ukraine’s self-defense and his full support for Kyiv — from military aid to training Ukrainian soldiers and his own diplomatic efforts — revealed a strong sense of the geopolitical moment. This consistent leadership deserves to sit on the positive side of the legacy ledger.

It is too early to tell whether the general public will revise its views over time. Johnson largely missed out on inaction over the summer as the Tory leadership race ran its course. But he took the time to restore his legacy by visiting Kyiv (where he is a national hero) and pledging to invest £700m ($806m) in the Sizewell C nuclear power plant project in the Suffolk.

One wild card is the ongoing investigation by the House of Commons Privilege Committee into whether he knowingly misled Parliament about Partygate. The Committee decides whether he is in contempt of Parliament and can recommend sanctions, including whether to end Johnson’s parliamentary career. The full House would then vote, again placing its future and legacy at the center of political debate.

Last week, the government released legal advice from David Pannick, a prominent lawyer, saying the committee’s review was fundamentally flawed and “would cripple democracy”. The pressure is on the Conservatives to take it easy. Yet the government’s clumsy attempt to overturn the privilege committee’s sanction on former MP Owen Paterson ended in his resignation and embarrassment for Johnson – a lesson that will be fresh in Truss’s mind.

As he sets up a new life (and, importantly for this famous skinny prime minister, a stream of income), Johnson is unlikely to make much noise other than supporting the new leader. But I wouldn’t bet it stays very quiet for very long.

On the one hand, he harbors a grievance. Johnson was clear he thinks he was thrown under the bus. And he always found an audience that was impossible to resist. He will certainly find it easy to send bat signals to his substantial follower base. Every (highly paid) speech and newspaper column will be analyzed by the media; a witty, well-focused line could be devastating for a particular Truss policy or could prove powerful in an election.

In the meantime, conservatives will continue to debate Johnson’s legacy, with some hoping to use it to bury him and others to raise a stronger version from the ashes of failure. Liz Truss has risen to power on her coattails, but she will be nervously looking over her shoulder at what he does next.

(Updated first two paragraphs with Boris Johnson’s farewell speech)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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