The Observer view on Boris Johnson’s baleful legacy

<span>Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty</span>
Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty

For seven years, Britain has been transfixed by the grotesque character flaws, overweening, principle-free ambition, recklessness, faux buffoonish “charm” and moral vacuum that is Boris Johnson. From the moment he re-entered the House of Commons in 2015, he has been a malevolent, demonic force dominating British politics – the author of a catalogue of betrayals and outright lies stretching from the falsehoods of the leave referendum campaign in 2016, his ruthless undermining of Theresa May’s prime ministership, his existentially bad Brexit deal and the implosion of his government last week. Vaingloriously boasting of his achievements that are nothing of the sort, he leaves his party politically bankrupt and his country economically menaced, constitutionally vandalised and internationally derided. Now, mercifully, he is heading for the door marked Exit.

Before the Pincher scandal broke, almost everybody charged with safeguarding public ethics had resigned – and not been replaced

Except he is still prime minister, the elders in the Tory party staying their hand in forcing him to quit. Unable even at the end to acknowledge in a graceless speech his own responsibility for being engulfed by more than 50 resignations from his government – brought to its knees by too many unwilling to serve under a serial liar who claimed he “forgot” the circumstances in which he appointed an alleged sex pest as his deputy chief whip – he remains at the apex of our national affairs for up to three more months. Once again, inflated by a sense of self-entitlement, he breaks the codes of our unwritten constitution for his own self-interest. He should stand down instantly. But today, as it has been for seven years, it is all about him and opportunistic calculations of personal advantage.

He will take no serious decisions as caretaker PM, he promises the country. Yet Britain over the months ahead will need some serious decisions and by a leader who can command a majority in their party and the House of Commons. That should be a caretaker PM. It cannot be Johnson who devises the reaction to the re-emergence of Covid, shapes further responses to the cost of living crisis, confronts an escalation of international tensions or triggers a trade war with the EU over breaking international law over Northern Ireland. What is the Tory party thinking? Obligation to country surely trumps conniving with one man’s cupidity.

No moral compass

Johnson, in his political death throes, still casts a spell over Torydom. He remains the man who delivered the sacred act of Brexit. For this treasured “triumph” he should be allowed to go with dignity, runs the Conservative line. Tragically for Britain, it was not the Brexit debacle, his U-turns, his mishandling of Covid, the lack of any coherent policy framework, his weakening of the protocols that underwrite our constitution, the numerous corruptions and evident inability to govern that triggered Johnson’s demise. What finished him was a succession of interventions – or, rather, lack of them – in which his hubris, lack of moral compass or any sense of ethics became obvious to all.

First was the doomed attempt last October to rewrite the House of Commons rulebook to save the skin of the obviously compromised Tory MP Owen Paterson for inappropriately lobbying in return for cash. Next came the flow of revelations over Partygate, with Johnson denying his evident presence at successive events breaking lockdown rules. An excoriating report from the senior civil servant Sue Gray damned his leadership in not setting better standards in No 10. The House of Commons privileges committee has launched an investigation into whether the prime minister lied to the House of Commons.

This was the backdrop to the events of the last few weeks. It took four days before the MP Neil Parish lost the whip for reading porn on his mobile in the chamber of the House of Commons. John Penrose MP then resigned as anti-corruption adviser over Johnson’s softening of the ministerial code, which in his view he had plainly broken. Lord Geidt, the prime minister’s ethics adviser, was to resign a few days later. Earlier this year, Lord Agnew, the anti-fraud minister, had resigned, unable, he said, to secure full-hearted backing for his efforts. Before the Pincher scandal broke, almost everybody charged with safeguarding public ethics had resigned – and not been replaced.

Johnson continued regardless, assuming he had a divine right to rule. The humiliations and lies of the Pincher affair were the last straw. His government imploded.

Lies were habitual

But the cabinet, Conservative MPs and his party cannot escape lightly. They have indulged habitual lying, integral to Johnson’s modus operandi, and in plain view – particularly over Brexit. There never was an “oven-ready” Brexit deal that would bring fabulous opportunity to Britain. The promises in the leave campaign of which Johnson was the main actor and driver – that trade with the EU would continue as before, that Britain could have its cake and eat it, that vast savings on the EU budget would be redirected to public services, notably the NHS – were false. His promise to the Northern Irish DUP that there would not be a border in the Irish Sea was a lie, even as he prepared to sign a treaty to enshrine just that.

Above all, even now, the Johnson government cannot bring itself to recognise the unfolding disaster or act to ameliorate it. No area of economic activity – from agriculture to financial services, manufacturing to small business – has benefited from Brexit. Exclusion from the EU single market and customs union is crippling. In the first three months of this year, the deficit on the current account of the balance of payments stood at a record 8.3 % of GDP. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility stands by its prediction that the diminution of trade and investment will cause GDP to be 4% lower than it would otherwise be over the next 15 years. Others believe that is an underestimate. The collateral damage extends to our science base, with Britain now excluded from the EU Horizon programme as the EU retaliates to Johnson wanting unilaterally to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol. Yet still Johnson continues to boast.

Britain climbed new heights in breathtaking levels of corruption, as Tory donors had their paths smoothed to lush Covid contracts

His overclaiming is routine. Britain, Johnson proclaims, led the world in its response to Covid, which it could not have done within the EU. Wrong. So far 181,000 have died in Britain – a Covid death rate per million above France, Germany, Italy, Spain and most of the EU and caused by being consistently too late to lockdown and too quick to exit – Johnson in thrall to the libertarian wing of the Tory party. No EU rule would have inhibited any UK government from striking the deals it did over vaccine production and for supportive medical equipment. Where Britain did climb new heights has been in breathtaking levels of corruption, as Tory donors and sympathisers had their paths smoothed to lush contracts with no process or accountability.

Levelling up, a talismanic Johnson domestic policy, is pockmarked with the same deficiencies. The levelling up white paper correctly calls for systemic, interlinked policies with transparent rules for all. Instead, earmarked funds are directed hotchpotch to Tory marginal constituencies to be used as pleased within no overarching framework. It is of a piece with the Johnson approach overall. Measures to hit net zero targets are disposed of at will. Public appointments are made not on ability, integrity or capacity to do the job – but fealty to Johnson, Toryism and Brexit. The stench is overwhelming.

The future

The first priority is restoring integrity to public life, the one thing on which every Tory candidate for the leadership agrees, but which, as the opposition leader, Keir Starmer, says, is no small project. Beyond that, it will be an ageing selectorate of Tory party members saturated in prejudices about the glories of Brexit, the imperative of low taxes above any other public priority, scepticism about climate change and hostility to immigration who will make the final choice of Britain’s next leader. Already, candidate Tom Tugendhat, a decent one nation Tory and longstanding critic of Johnson, has had to abase himself with promises not to repair the damage of Brexit and to slash taxes that he must know are wrong. But which he has to make given the deranged nature of post-Johnson Tory politics.

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This is both the opportunity and challenge confronting Labour – and the Lib Dems, re-emerging as a force in British politics. The country is appalled by Johnson and the collusion of a plainly clueless Conservative party in his follies and depravities. Britain needs a newly serious politics. Our constitution must be reformed never to be exposed to such corruption and abuse again. Our capitalism needs a fundamental reset so that purpose, innovation and good business and employment practice are at the heart of our companies. Our public services must be rejuvenated and glaring inequalities redressed; levelling up must be delivered with the proper resources and to everyone, whatever their political hue. The drive to net zero must be uncompromising. Our relations with the EU must be repaired and access regained to the single market without which there is no avenue to sustained prosperity. Russia must know that unequivocal support for Ukraine is not down to Johnson alone, but accepted by all parties, as is our commitment to Nato. This agenda can be shared across all the opposition parties, liberating the tactical voting that is such a necessity in a first-past-the-post system. The Johnson curse has at last been lifted. Britain must strike out anew.