The last, dark days of his premiership have shown that Johnson has only one care in the world: to salvage his own reputation, argues Tom Scott.
When Boris Johnson insisted that he would stay on as a ‘caretaker’ prime minister, despite having lost the confidence of his own MPs, there were many who were sceptical about what this would mean in practice.
Well, now we know. For Johnson, a caretaker PM is a prime minister who continues to enjoy the perks and privileges of high office while doing nothing whatsoever to address the multiple acute crises caused by the cruelty, incompetence and corruption of his own government.
His ‘caretaker’ status has afforded Johnson plentiful opportunity for restful recreation at Chequers as well as holidays in Slovenia and Greece. Sensibly, he and Carrie have opted to avoid the beaches of our own Septic Isle, onto which privatised water companies have been relentlessly pouring raw sewage.
But it has not all been boozy Mediterranean beach parties. There is one aspect of his short premiership over which Johnson seems to be taking considerable care, and that is how it – and more importantly he – will be remembered.
There are so many stand-out moments. The parties, the corruption scandals, the cover-ups, the Afghan disaster, his failure to act quickly enough to save tens of thousands of lives from deadly disease, just like his hero Mayor Vaughn in Jaws.
But this is not, of course, how Johnson wishes to be remembered. He has grander ambitions altogether, and his model when it comes to historical remembrance is quite plainly Winston Churchill.
Johnson has long felt an affinity with the wartime leader – whom he has described, admiringly, as a “rogue elephant” in the Tory party – and this has been undimmed by the derision heaped by serious historians on his 2014 Churchill biography.
After his last scheduled cabinet meeting in July, a Downing Street spokesman announced that “the prime minister was presented with gifts to thank him for his service to the country [sic], including first editions of Winston Churchill’s books on the Second World War.” How well his colleagues understood the prime minister’s wish-fulfilment fantasies.
But there is a small problem. Johnson’s record is a twisted wreck of lies, broken promises and bad faith. How on earth can this be burnished to a Churchillian lustre?
For the ever-resourceful Johnson, there’s a simple answer. Churchill’s many disastrous blunders and indiscretions have all been eclipsed by his image as a courageous wartime leader. And if it could happen for Winston, then why not for Boris? All that’s needed is a war.
As luck would have it, Vladimir Putin, whose cronies have poured so much cash into Conservative Party coffers, has given the prime minister just the parting gift that he needed – perhaps even more welcome than the Churchill first editions.
In the past few months, Johnson has taken every opportunity to apply Churchillian rhetoric to the Ukraine conflict, often lifting orotund phrases from Churchill’s own wartime speeches.
In July, the prime minister bestowed the Sir Winston Churchill Leadership Award on the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a ceremony in London attended by members of the Churchill family. Comparing Zelenskyy with Churchill, Johnson said:
“I can imagine his spirit walking with you, silently urging you on, encouraging you through every ordeal, jabbing the way ahead with his walking stick […]
“Like Churchill, you’ve understood that you yourself are not the lion. The Ukrainian people are the lion. You have been called upon to give the roar. The roar of freedom against tyranny, of good against evil, of light against darkness, and you have delivered that roar magnificently.”
But the man on whom Johnson really wishes this Churchillian glow to reflect is not Zelenskyy, but Johnson himself.
This is not to suggest that Zelenskyy does not deserve the highest praise for his courage and resilience, or that Britain should not be giving all the support it can to Ukraine in its struggle against fascist war criminals. This, I believe, would have been given by any British prime minister.
But the way in which Johnson is using this war to try to rescue his own reputation leaves a very sour taste – and particularly so when his rhetoric turns to the impacts of Putin’s war on people in Britain.
In Kyiv this week – the last foreign visit of his premiership – Johnson remarked:
“If we’re paying in our energy bills for the evils of Vladimir Putin, the people of Ukraine are paying in their blood.”
For good measure, he threw in a swipe at unions
“who have the ruinous belief that the best way to tackle soaring energy prices is with ever higher wages”.
On the day on which the regulator announced that household energy bills – already unpayable by millions – will rise by 80% in October, Johnson’s Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi echoed this line, urging the British people to “remain resilient” for the sake of “the war effort”.
In one sense Johnson and Zahawi are right – we are faced with something very like a wartime situation, even if Russian bombs are not dropping on British cities. Putin’s war of imperialist aggression has been accompanied by a wider economic war, using the dependency on fossil fuels of the UK and other countries as a weapon.
But in previous wartime situations, governments – not least Churchill’s government of national unity – have done everything in their power to protect their civilian populations. In World War Two, this entailed a massive programme of civil defence, bomb shelters, and radical interventions into markets to ensure that no-one was deprived of the bare essentials of life.
By contrast, Johnson’s government has hardly lifted a finger to protect people from the damage inflicted by this economic war. Instead, it’s leaving the most vulnerable among us to suffer its worst impacts, which for millions will mean hunger, cold and utter destitution.
And when Johnson, speaking of the most extreme price shock in modern times, says that “our first test as friends of Ukraine will be to face down and endure that pressure”, it is worth noting that the this “we” does not include him.
Until he became prime minister, Johnson was paid £275,000 a year to write a weekly article for the Daily Telegraph. That works out at almost £5,300 per article – which by happy coincidence is about what the average annual household energy bill is expected to reach early next year. Not bad for a couple of hours a week – and there will of course be all kinds of other opportunities for Johnson to milk his post-PM status.
What might a government that cared about its population do to protect people in this crisis? For one thing, a huge effort to insulate homes. For another, radical intervention into dysfunctional energy markets, including nationalisation of the largest energy companies, much higher taxes on fossil fuel producers, real price controls and social tariffs.
By failing to take action matching the gravity of our situation, Johnson and his government are effectively helping Putin maximise the impacts of his economic war on our population.
Johnson likes to pose for photos in Kyiv, but he has failed in the most basic duty of a ‘wartime’ leader. His rhetoric about the sacrifices he expects of the British people is less reminiscent of Churchill’s famous rallying calls to the nation than of the speech made by the self-serving narcissist Lord Farquaad to the assembled populace in Shrek:
“Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.”
And it is as a self-serving narcissist that Boris Johnson should be remembered.