Why Boris Johnson's successor is likely to fail, too

The outgoing Prime Minister will bequeath a laundry list of unfinished business

Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks into an electron microscope in a laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute on Monday in London. Getty Images
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When a politician is elected to high office, there is always the same kind of formula. They promise to heal divisions.

Abraham Lincoln talked of “binding up the nation’s wounds". He was assassinated shortly afterwards. George W Bush, another former US president, told anyone who would listen, that “I’m a uniter not a divider". He divided America and the world over America's invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 1979, then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher quoted Saint Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” Her tough stance against striking miners and Irish Republican Army hunger strikers meant she became a hate figure for some.

Now Boris Johnson has finally – finally – bowed to pressure to resign as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party as a result of his many lies and ethical failings. There are plenty of rival candidates to succeed him. They are a disparate bunch, but we can predict that the winner will claim to be a unifying force in a divided country. That’s because division is Mr Johnson’s only real legacy.

The UK is very divided over Brexit. More than half of us believe it’s a huge mistake. Mr Johnson says he “got Brexit done". It’s unfinished. He claims he triumphed over coronavirus with a vaccination programme that was “world leading", when 181,000 British people died with the disease, and there were illegal parties in Downing Street.

In 2022, the UK is more dis-United than at any point in living memory. Ulster unionist politicians complain – rightly – that Mr Johnson never really cared about Northern Ireland.

The worst part of the Johnson legacy is the destruction of trust in British public life

In Brussels, relations with the EU are poor. In Washington, US President Joe Biden did not express regret at his resignation. He merely offered good wishes for Britain.

At home, the National Health Service has record waiting lists for treatments. Doctors, nurses and other key workers, say their living standards have seriously deteriorated. Some speak of strike action. The post-Brexit British economy is performing poorly. The pound has lost value against the euro and dollar. Trade is disrupted by the Brexit bureaucracy.

But perhaps the worst part of the dismal Johnson legacy, which his successor will have to deal with, is the destruction of trust in British public life. Mr Johnson has been forced out of office because he lied repeatedly and shamelessly, devaluing democracy itself.

Schoolchildren are taught that the British system guarantees stable governments. It used to. Yet, since the Brexit vote in 2016, the people of the UK have witnessed the Conservative party psychodrama destroy three Conservative prime ministers – David Cameron, Theresa May, and Mr Johnson himself. All three were undermined by the actions of the same person – yes, by Mr Johnson. He did for himself in the end.

This Johnson-inspired chaotic self-harm means his successor inherits a UK in which the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, is demanding another referendum on independence next year. Sinn Fein, the political party once associated with Irish terrorism, is now the largest party in Northern Ireland. The former Conservative chancellor George Osborne predicted last year that Mr Johnson could go into history as the worst British prime minister ever, worse even than Frederick North, who lost the American colonies in the War of Independence that began in 1776.

British and Scottish flags held up over Edinburgh, Scotland. PA Wire

Mr Johnson’s successor will therefore repeat the “uniter not a divider” formula, but the healing will be difficult and perhaps impossible. Brexit will never be “done” while its terms are being re-negotiated. Many in Scotland will not give up on independence whatever happens next. The Conservative party’s new leader must decide either to embrace Mr Johnson’s supposed “achievements” or – more likely, I think – run away from his divisive legacy.

That great American statesman Benjamin Franklin once noted that “it takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it". It takes many good prime ministers to build a good reputation for a country, and only one to lose it. Losing Britain’s trusted reputation is indeed Mr Johnson’s legacy.

That reputation as a good friend and ally needs to be rebuilt, if not by the next Conservative prime minister then perhaps by the Labour party leader Keir Starmer who can taste power. The next British prime minister will have to work fast or risk becoming the person whose own legacy will be not just national decline but the end of the UK as currently constructed, if – when? – Scotland does leave.

The future of all 68 million British citizens, however, is not really in our own hands. To become leader of the Conservative party, a candidate simply has to win over half of a tiny electorate of Conservative party members. Mr Johnson became prime minister in 2019 based on the votes of just 92,000 Conservatives. Party members tend to be older than the British average, mostly male and white.

This small, unrepresentative group has our future in their hands. They saddled us with three failed prime ministers, including Mr Johnson – that’s one every two years, since 2016. It’s a dismal record, and so a fourth failed leader is definitely a possibility.

Published: July 12, 2022, 7:17 AM