By Natasha Hakimi Zapata / The Nation
“Them’s the breaks,” an unrepentant Boris Johnson told reporters crowding outside Downing Street on July 7. Just 1,079 days after he took the reins of the United Kingdom’s government, the man once dubbed “Britain’s Trump” resigned in a storm of scandals, lost local elections, and plummeting popularity ratings. On the surface, his decision to promote a known sexual predator to high-ranking office—a man the prime minister callously joked was a “Pincher by name, Pincher by nature”—finally took him down. The reality is that Johnson had been losing the confidence of British voters long before he’d lost that of his right-wing party; it just took power-hungry Conservatives nearly three disastrous years to finally force him out.
As rumors regarding the Etonian’s next move continue to swirl—the latest being head of NATO—Johnson’s spent his final days in office as he did much of his premiership: planning a party, this time his lavish wedding bash on a Tory donor’s estate. Meanwhile, the UK is already in the throes of another leadership contest, as the Tory Party and its largely white elderly male members mull over a replacement for the third Conservative prime minister to resign since 2016. The pickings are slim, with the two candidates—former chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss—painting barely different pictures of the right-wing dystopia to come. Both played leading roles in Johnson’s ruinous government, and their main differences center on whether to maintain some tax rises—Sunak’s favored approach—or dramatically slash them. Other than that, neither has released meaningful plans to address any pressing issues, top among them the climate crisis, even as the UK is scorched by historic heat waves. The two also largely agree on everything from selling the publicly owned Channel 4 to setting fire to leftover European Union laws. Front-runner Truss has, however, recently distinguished herself by promising a draconian clampdown on trade unions striking for better conditions as inflation soars.
But before we brace for the next prime minister, as Johnson packs his bags and peels the millionaire donor-funded gold wallpaper off Downing Street’s walls, it’s worth reflecting on how his premiership has damaged Britain—and will continue to do so for years to come. Given the extent of the harm, it’s a Sisyphean task to list Johnson’s every offense. Here are just a handful of the outgoing prime minister’s worst transgressions.
At the top of an impossibly long bill for damages, two self-inflicted catastrophes vie for first place: Johnson’s series of disastrous Covid-19 responses, and Brexit. Johnson’s early pandemic response can be described as a combination of utter denial, a ruthless “herd immunity” approach, and delays that, according to some estimates, led to tens of thousands of deaths that could’ve been avoided if the prime minister had declared a lockdown even one week earlier. Under his watch, countless elderly hospital patients were sent to care homes without being tested for Covid-19, leading to outbreaks that killed 19,783 care home residents within the first wave of the global pandemic. Despite his own brush with death, Johnson took a characteristically flippant approach to the pandemic, infamously partying his way through several lockdowns, breaking regulations that his own government created even as his constituents lost loved ones without being able to visit them on their deathbeds. This scandalous disregard also earned him a place in history as the first prime minister to be fined for breaking the law while in office.
To date the pandemic has killed nearly 200,000 Britons and left the country’s beloved National Health Service reeling from staff shortages and astronomical waiting lists. Aside from invites to illegal shindigs, many of the Johnson cabinet’s wealthy associates also got cushy government contracts for everything from personal protective equipment to Covid-19 tests in a gross display of pandemic profiteering and crony capitalism. One of Johnson’s MPs, Owen Paterson, was forced to resign over his connection to Randox, a private health care company that had him on the payroll to the tune of £100,000 ($120,000) a year while benefiting from government contracts and schemes. Yet even after the Paterson scandal, Johnson and much of his party seemingly saw no difficulty with such lobbying. And let’s not forget that in 2020, as the UK was still negotiating its exit from the European Union, Johnson’s government put lives at risk by allowing Brexit to hamper procurement of life-saving equipment.
Which brings us to Brexit itself—that pernicious portmanteau that has infected everything in the UK for the better part of a decade. Johnson famously campaigned hard for Brexit, using his popularity as London’s former mayor and his right-wing columns as a platform to spread lies about the benefits leaving the EU would deliver. His most glaring fabrication was emblazoned on a red bus that read: “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.” Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings credits that lie with the “Leave” campaign’s victory in the 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Not only was that figure misleading—ignoring a number of factors, including funding the UK received from the EU—in office Johnson failed to increase the NHS budget by anything close to that amount. Instead, like his Tory predecessors, he starved the service of funding and feuded with nurses over wages.
Many viewed Johnson’s Brexit campaign as a cynical ploy on the New York–born leader’s behalf to raise his profile enough to seize power. Once he finally made it to Downing Street—leaving two prime ministers in his wake—he passed a nearly identical Brexit deal to the one he’d attacked when it had been proposed by Theresa May, before promptly announcing he wanted to break the Northern Ireland protocol. Brexit has already severely wounded the British economy, with labor shortages becoming commonplace and OECD experts projecting the country’s GDP growth to shrink to zero by next year. Although Tories are happy to blame their economic woes on the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, there’s plenty of evidence to show that Brexit is playing an outsize role.
In the midst of a “cost of living crisis” that’s only set to worsen over the winter with skyrocketing energy costs, and the value of the pound in the doldrums, that “Brexit dividend” Conservatives promised to deliver is nowhere to be found. Rather than boost the economy, as Johnson promised, Brexit has helped plunge even more people into poverty, with over 2 million people now relying on food banks—a number only likely to increase.
At its heart, Brexit was fueled by racist xenophobia—words that also apply to the disgraced prime minister who, among many slurs, once compared women who wear burkas to “letter boxes.” These same descriptors can also be used to discuss another of Johnson’s offenses: his government’s Rwanda deportation policy. Johnson took the Tories’ “hostile environment” to immigration to the next level by trying to offshore asylum seekers to another continent. While at first it seemed the UK would merely process asylum seekers’ applications while they were held in a detention center in Rwanda, it later emerged that the government actually intended to eject immigrants on a one-way ticket. The first deportation attempt to Rwanda failed as legal challenges, including by an Iranian torture victim, prevailed in late June. The policy—which Truss and Sunak have both vowed to maintain, even expand—is illustrative of the heartlessness and raw political opportunism that has come to characterize the Tory Party, never more so than under Johnson’s leadership.
Tories used their 80-seat parliamentary majority to severely curtail civil liberties and freedom of speech with their Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill this spring. The new law, which already went into effect, expands police stop-and-search abilities and endows cops with draconian powers to fine peaceful protesters thousands of pounds and even imprison them for up to a decade. Deemed “part of a hugely worrying and widespread attack on human rights from across [Johnson’s] Government” by Sacha Deshmukh, the CEO of Amnesty International UK, the law was specifically designed to target groups like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter.
Shortly after Johnson’s resignation, John Major—the former prime minister who presided over his own era of “Tory sleaze”—condemned Johnson and his government for “damag[ing] the UK at home and abroad.” He’s not wrong. Johnson’s willingness to break agreements at the drop of a hat established the UK as an unreliable international actor. But more than the damage to the country’s reputation, it’s Johnson’s undermining of Britain’s trust in its democratic institutions that will have the longest-lasting effect. A recent survey by the Office of National Statistics reveals that only 35 percent of the British public said they had trust in their government. That’s the lowest percentage on record. Breaking lockdown laws as he demanded that his fellow citizens stay home, no matter the costs to their physical, mental and financial wellbeing, is just one of the many ways Johnson accomplished this. Although the NHS’s successful vaccine rollout—which succeeded in spite of Johnson’s government—helped boost confidence in the health service, health care backlogs are eroding these gains.
Above all, the many, many lies Johnson and his government told the public—from that red Brexit bus to his denying he knew about Chris Pincher’s offenses—have contributed to a belief that government cannot be trusted to deal with the coming recession, let alone to save our lives. There’s no doubt the damage Johnson has done will outlast him, but don’t expect Tories or the man who wouldn’t pay for his own wallpaper to foot the bill. It’s everyday Britons, especially the most vulnerable, who will be paying for his offenses for years to come. Them’s the breaks, indeed.