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Clownfall – the end of Johnson, our worst Prime Minister

July 7, 2022

Boris Johnson is the worst Prime Minister of my lifetime, arguably the worst of the last century and maybe the worst of all time. In the line of fifty five Prime Ministers starting with Walpole, Johnson could be ranked 55th, a transatlantic partnership with his fellow New Yorker Donald Trump, ranked by most commentators the worst of US Presidents.

The chaotic and ungracious manner of Johnson’s resignation from the Conservative Party leadership and in time the Premiership can also be compared to Trump’s refusal to accept defeat.  At least we are spared a storming of Parliament by well-armed right wing cranks. Johnson, unlike Trump, has lost most of his fanatical followers, a fact he doesn’t appear to accept given his repeated references to his “colossal mandate” from 2019.

Johnson is the first Prime Minister in the last century to be removed mainly for multiple personal failings, rather than policy differences within the cabinet or between government and backbenchers. The strong personalities of Lloyd George a century ago or Thatcher in 1990 were undoubtedly a factor in their downfall. But Thatcher was removed for stubbornly persisting with the poll tax, the main reason for the new Liberal Democrat party’s first by election win at Eastbourne in October 1990.  She had also opened up what became a three decade long fissure inside the Tory party on Europe. Lloyd George was the towering figure in British politics, the most famous man in the world in 1922, yet he was toppled by a revolt of the backbench Tory MPs who wanted to end the Lib-Con coalition that he headed – hence the name of the ‘1922 Committee’ in the news every time the Tories have a crisis.

Johnson has been toppled by Tory MPs who had finally had enough of his multiple character failings.  We’ve had Prime Ministers who were casual with the facts, or with money or with their sex lives. Johnson is the only one who combined mendacity, greed and lechery with an abundance of self- confidence and entitlement and a belief that rules were for other people.  Anyone who worked with Johnson would have been aware of these failings, including myself. 

Our parliamentary careers overlapped before he left to become Mayor of London.  We were both members of the Education Select Committee and were our parties’ shadow Higher Education ministers so I saw him at close quarters every week for a couple of years and we chatted often.  I was exposed to the humour and charm but like a lot of public schoolboys I’ve encountered I also found him shallow and lazy. His self-deprecating humour duped a lot of people but like all clowns it was just an act.

Tory ministers firing off their resignation letters in the last few days would have been even more aware of Johnson’s failings but looked the other way while they thought he was a winner. They turned on him only when he became a vote loser, after 3 by election losses to the Lib Dems, including the largest ever vote turnaround at Tiverton. Their sudden appreciation of the virtues of trust and rigour should be taken with a bag full of salt.

Johnson’s legacy will be a big win in the 2019 general election, he was undoubtedly a popular campaigner.  He succeeded in “getting Brexit done” but with an extreme form of Brexit that maximised rather than limited damage to the British economy, leaving multiple problems for his successor.  The covid pandemic obscured the damage and also the rudderless and chaotic style of government.  Keen on slogans but not on detail, “levelling up” has not been defined with any clarity.  

In the end it is fitting that Johnson was brought down by a colleague’s sex scandal that exposed his lies and carelessness. It is satisfying that his final days in (meaningful) office were farcical and humiliating.  Our worst Prime Minister gave himself the most unedifying departure.

Finally, a personal choice of the best and worst Prime Ministers of the last century:

The BestDavid Lloyd George and Winston Churchill for leading the country to victory in the two world wars and in Lloyd George’s case for putting in place many of the pillars of our welfare state, including state pensions, health cover, unemployment benefit, free school meals and council houses.

The worst –  Boris Johnson, for all the reasons given above, plus Anthony Eden for clinging to the delusion that Britain could continue as a global force, a delusion that is long lasting in today’s Conservative party. Everyone knows of his big mistake of the Suez invasion but the more damaging decision derived from his political conceit for Britain was declining to join the European Economic Community as a founder member, making life difficult for all his successors.

The significant –  Clement Attlee for the National Health Service* and extending social security*; Harold Wilson – for his government’s social reforms of the late 1960s, abolishing hanging, relaxing laws on male homosexuality and divorce and creating the Open University; Edward Heath for rectifying Eden’s error and joining the EEC; Margaret Thatcher for having a vision for Britain that she largely delivered through sheer force of conviction and will (this is not a note of approval of what she did!); Tony Blair for giving Labour 13 years in power with a lot of good done at home in health and education, devolving power to Wales, Scotland and a peaceful Northern Ireland (but failed to deliver other constitutional reform) but will be remembered for the disastrous invasion of Iraq and finally David Cameron – I’m clearly conflicted about him, having been a minister in the Coalition government that he headed, a government that was a paragon of virtue, capability and stability compared to the chaos of single party Conservative government that followed. But Cameron will mainly be remembered for the disastrous decision of his second government, calling an EU referendum for which there was no public clamour.  Intended to settle disputes inside the Tory party it instead divided the country and shifted his party to the populist right, paving the way for the premiership of that flawed populist Boris Johnson.  

**worth a note that all the main pillars of the welfare state were erected by three Welsh MPs – David Lloyd George, Aneurin Bevan (NHS) and James Griffiths, who ended the last remnants of the poor law and introduced benefits to alleviate poverty.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Nonconformistradical permalink
    July 7, 2022 10:55 pm

    Harold Wilson – also kept UK out of the Vietnam war

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