Now to expunge the Johnson legacy

The damage that the former PM has done to the British state will take decades to undo

June 21, 2023
Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Now that parliament, as well as Downing Street, is rid of Boris Johnson, the unravelling of his legacy can proceed apace. The damage he did to the British state—both its integrity and its policy—will take huge political work to undo and will not be truly erased until Britain rejoins the European Union. It could take decades.

The task is threatened by the fact that the Tory party hasn’t unanimously endorsed the verdict of the Privileges Committee. In stark contrast to Keir Starmer’s treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, Rishi Sunak’s abstention on the vote to support the committee’s scathing report gives Johnson some room to manoeuvre hereafter. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he stages a comeback as Tory leader if Sunak loses the next election.

Nor has the malignant Tory media expelled its protégé: on the contrary, it continues to give him a platform (including a Mail column). A lot depends on which mogul buys the Telegraph, now up for sale, and where they position it relative to Johnson. It is essential that Tories rapidly come to see Johnson alongside Chamberlain and Eden, not Thatcher and Churchill.

But assuming Johnson isn’t resurrected as a leader and election winner, his legacy should be comprehensively dismantled. This starts with the machinery of government and public appointments, where the record is one of cronyism and corruption. The Augean stables need to be thoroughly cleansed. Richard Sharp’s removal from the BBC was a first step. There now needs to be a new cabinet secretary, a reckoning with all those Tory stooges who made millions from dodgy Covid contracts, and a return to merit-based appointments for top Whitehall and public service jobs. The Ministerial Code needs to be treated as a Bible.

The honours system and the House of Lords need to be rescued from the contempt for rules and standards shown by senior politicians in recent years. Radical reform of the Lords is unlikely, as I wrote last week, but for as long as it remains a nominated assembly its new members should be distinguished, not disgraceful.

Sue Gray, the Whitehall ethics tsar who is becoming Starmer’s chief of staff, is ideally placed to enforce all this if Labour wins next year. Restoring standards and competence to public life is a compelling priority post-Johnson. It would also set an example in the new reign to downsize the monarchy, which still operates on overblown imperial lines, sustained by an extraordinary funding windfall in the sovereign grant introduced by George Osborne a decade ago.

Johnson’s Brexit legacy will be harder to expunge. The Windsor Framework, devised to deal with the Northern Ireland crisis, has normalised relations with the European Union, and the Ukraine crisis—where Johnson has his one major legacy of positive action—has seen a reassertion of Nato’s power and improved defence and security relations with both Europe and the US. Even in a context of crisis these developments are worth celebrating. But Johnson’s deplorable Trade and Cooperation Agreement needs to be fundamentally renegotiated to take Britain back into the orbit—if not immediate membership—of the EU’s customs union and single market. This can’t start until the Tories are removed from office.

The re-election of Joe Biden would also help a lot next year. The restoration of Donald Trump would be an especial disaster for Britain, putting Nato in immediate jeopardy. Instead of being in a position to renegotiate our trading relations with Europe we would be faced with an existential threat to European security. To bury Johnson, we need our American friends to bury Trump too.

Then there is the post-Johnson imperative to truly level-up the poorer regions of England, making it a reality rather than a fraudulent slogan. Building the whole of HS2 to Manchester and Leeds over the next decade is a necessary precondition. So, too, the regional investment in green growth signalled by Labour this week. Boosting London is equally vital, which requires access to the single market for its huge financial and business services sectors, ASAP. More Liverpool need not mean less London.

 Could we rejoin the EU in the next decade? That is a question to be asked by whoever is prime minister when we realign with the customs union and single market. Maybe the overt aspiration to do so could be part of the Labour manifesto after next. I suspect re-entry will depend on whether, by then, the Tories have well and truly exorcised Johnson.