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The truth about Boris Johnson’s legacy

Jack Blanchard is POLITICO’s U.K. editor. He was previously London Playbook‘s first author and the host of Westminster Insider.

All politicians are liars — but few of them lie with the ease of Boris Johnson. 

For the most part, this is not their fault. The British system of Cabinet government requires ministers nodding along with all manner of nonsense they don’t agree with. Party unity demands our politicians prostrate themselves before morning news program presenters to say things we know they do not believe.

That is our political system. It’s churlish to blame politicians for taking part in it, even when they approach it with the obsequiousness of ministers like Michael Ellis or Grant Shapps.

But Johnson — past tense, now, of course — was in a different league. 

Johnson could, and did, lie for England. The charge sheet against him is vast and hardly needs repeating, stretching back as it does beyond the breaching of our quaint Westminster conventions, and all the way through to his first jobs in newspapers, his first shadow Cabinet posts, his first marriages.

That he brought his longstanding contempt for the truth into Downing Street should have come as no surprise. There’s no evidence he can operate in any other way — nor, until this past week, that he ever needed to. 

What was surprising, however, about his three eventful yet oddly underwhelming years as prime minister, was just how quickly his lies infected the rest of government. 

Political journalists are hardly pillars of virtuous society, but they do not appreciate being lied to. In a decade working in Westminster, I’ve seen five prime minister’s official spokesmen and women come and go, along with countless deputies. Daily, we would watch them tiptoe around the truth, deflect or distract from it, offer out half-formed pieces of information to protect their masters in Downing Street. Such is their job — and we pay them for it.

But they never lied to us. That was the deal. They never lied.

Under Johnson, this changed. Over Partygate, Pincher and goodness knows what else, Downing Street would tell lies to the press and so — by proxy — to the country about what was going on inside the heart of government. Too frequently, we were told — at times forcefully — that a story was wrong, only for it to turn out to be true.

Senior ministers were dispatched onto broadcast media to do the same. Perhaps, if we’re feeling charitable, they all did so unwittingly. Perhaps.

Anyway. This article was meant to consider Boris Johnson’s legacy, and in a very obvious sense it is Brexit that towers above all else. Unusually for a prime minister, with Brexit Johnson achieved something genuinely seismic which will resonate for decades hence, changing the course of the country for better or for worse. Just as unusually, this was a project he began from the backbenches, in 2016, only finishing the job when he entered Downing Street three and a half years later.

Changed, too, is the shape of the Conservative Party, Johnson having rediscovered a long-forgotten Tory path leading deep into post-industrial England. 

These were both lasting changes to the shape of British Conservatism. The next Tory leader will not abandon Brexit — nor newly-converted Conservative voters in Bassetlaw, Blyth Valley or Bolsover either. Not without a fight, at least.

But in Westminster, it is the lies that will be the legacy.

Johnson was frequently — and wrongly — compared to Donald Trump by his detractors, a cheap shot that hopelessly underestimated his wit, his intellect, his generosity of spirit, his powerful political brain.

But on his propensity to lie — perhaps along with his sheer, naked ambition — there was surely something there.

Unlike with Trump, however, we can be hopeful the lies will not outlast the liar. 

It seems clear now that even if Trump does not seek the presidential nomination in 2024, there is a whole army of mini-Trumps marching mob-handed through the Republican movement, honing the same techniques, waiting to pick up the baton.

But as we’ve seen over the past week, the Conservatives are not the Republicans.

Unlike Trump, Boris has been rejected by his grand old party, thrown out of office not by voters but by scores of his own MPs, sick of the lies and the bluster and the deceit. 

The likelihood now must be that the Tories will pick someone who promises to restore some honesty and some honor to the office of prime minister — whatever their politics, whatever their views on Brexit or tax or anything else. 

If a re-embrace of veracity proves the ultimate legacy of Boris Johnson, then Westminster, at least, will be richer for that. 

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