Daniel Johnson is the editor of TheArticle.com. He is a former associate and literary editor of The Times; he was a senior editor at The Daily Telegraph and the founding editor of Standpoint.
Boris Johnson was prime minister for less than three years, but in that short time, he altered the course of European history. Though his premiership has come to a chaotic and unseemly end, he deserves to rank among the handful of British statesmen and women of the past century who made a real difference to the world: Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.
Johnson’s first and most enduring legacy is, of course, Brexit. Not all readers will share his enthusiasm for this bold reassertion of national sovereignty, but none can deny its seismic significance.
Johnson led the referendum campaign and stamped his personality on the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union — it was he who made good on his promise to “get Brexit done.” After the disappointment of former prime ministers, David Cameron’s “renegotiation” and the despair of Theresa May’s dysfunctional and divisive “deal,” Johnson bulldozed the opposition and won a huge mandate from the electorate to cut the Gordian knot. And Boris’s Brexit treaty removed the U.K. from the arachnid jurisdiction of the EU and its institutions.
It was an exercise in escapology worthy of Houdini — but there was a flaw.
The Northern Ireland protocol created an artificial and unnecessary customs border in the Irish Sea, alienating the pro-British unionist community and leaving the fragile peace of the province more imperiled than for a quarter of a century. The EU’s punitive and inflexible interpretation of post-Brexit trade with the U.K. has turned the protocol into an instrument of Irish republican irredentism. Despite Johnson’s best efforts to find a compromise that allows goods to flow freely while protecting the single market, it remains an intractable problem he bequeaths to his successor.
Johnson’s second great test was the pandemic, during which he became seriously ill with COVID-19, and almost literally came back from the dead. The jury is still out on his handling of the economic crisis caused by lockdowns, allied to the exorbitant cost of various forms of income support and corporate subsidies. But the primary responsibility for runaway inflation, caused, in part, by printing too much money and stimulus overshoot, rests not with Johnson but with the Bank of England and the Treasury, respectively. And it’s fair to say that he was proved right about the vaccine rollout — initially the quickest in Europe — and the early lifting of restrictions a year ago.
The legacy of COVID-19 spending and taxation, which left the U.K. with a bloated state weighing heavily on living standards, remains unfinished business. But Johnson can reasonably claim to have mitigated the damage done. And had his party allowed him to continue in office, he would doubtless have reverted to his instinctive fiscal conservatism — impossible during an unprecedented pandemic.
The pandemic also provided the first cost-benefit analysis of Brexit, admittedly under the worst circumstances imaginable. Johnson was unlucky to be forced to postpone his post-Brexit agenda of domestic deregulation and global free trade. Yet, insofar as the U.K. survived the ordeal as well as its EU neighbors, he and his fellow Brexiteers felt vindicated. His leveling-up policies, aimed mainly at the Leave-voting so-called “Red Wall” regions of England, were also delayed by the need to repair the ailing National Health Service and to provide wrap-around pandemic prophylaxis.
However, the COVID-19 crisis soon morphed into yet another chapter in the stormy relationship between the Continental cartel and the buccaneering offshore islanders. Battles with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over vaccine supplies and with French President Emmanuel Macron over cross-Channel trade did nothing to restore cordial relations with the bloc. Yet, history may judge Johnson to be more sinned against than sinning in this mutual antagonism: the vindictive attitudes emanating from Paris and Berlin were not reciprocated in London. Macron had, for years, openly sneered at Johnson as a “clown,” yet when he demanded a public reconciliation at last month’s G7 summit, Johnson responded generously to the importunate president.
The next test of British independence, however, was unleashed by another horseman of the apocalypse: not pestilence but war, perhaps soon to be followed by famine.
In Russian President Vladimir Putin, Johnson found a foe prepared to destroy everything and everyone in his path with diabolical nihilism. And when it came to Ukraine, he can legitimately claim to have played his cards with almost uncanny skill.
Unlike Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who found himself caught up in a Faustian pact with Putin’s war machine due to Germany’s dependence on Russian energy, Johnson could claim to have seen the war coming. British forces had been training their Ukrainian counterparts ever since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In the early stages of the invasion, British arms and training played a vital role in Ukraine’s defeat of the Russian offensives on Kyiv and Kharkiv.
No less important was Johnson’s leadership, stiffening the resolve of a wobbly United States President Joe Biden and ensuring that the Anglosphere stood foursquare behind Ukraine — even if Europeans were divided on how far to commit resources to the conflict.
Johnson’s unequivocal support for their cause made him a hero for Ukrainians and enabled him to forge a unique bond with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, their embattled president. Zelenskyy is no fool: he knew just how genuine his friend Boris’ commitment was to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Putin’s propaganda issued ever more hysterical threats against the U.K., and when Johnson resigned, the Russian Foreign Ministry said: “The moral of the story: do not try to destroy Russia.”
Yet, the real moral of the story is a different one: Don’t expect your party to reward you for doing the right thing on the world stage.
Johnson was brought down over his cumulative mishandling of managerial issues inside Downing Street. The leader who, in 2019, had won the Conservatives their largest share of the vote since 1979, was discarded in a putsch by an unholy alliance of Westminster, the civil service and the BBC. And the prime minister who had saved the country from the nightmare of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn — a far-left extremist — was denounced as “unfit for office” by current Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who had served Corbyn loyally.
In the 21st century, so far only three European leaders will likely be remembered in 100 years’ time. One, I fear, is Vladimir Putin, whose name will live in infamy. The second is Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the doughty defender of Ukraine. And the third is Boris Johnson, the man who rallied the West against the enemies of our civilization.