Johnson at 10: Britain reckons with 'BoJo' and his Brexit legacy
“Every Prime Minister is different. But every Prime Minister is the same,” thinking about the meaning and legacy of Boris Johnson’s premiership from 2019 to 2022 is going to be a source of debate for years to come.
Whatever conclusions will be drawn in the future there is no denying Britain has been transformed and is a different place, future historians will have Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell’s new book Johnson at 10: The Inside Story to chew over as they deliberate.
As the title suggests, Johnson at 10, offers an inside look at the players and characters that shaped Johnson’s rule. Talking to opponents and those close to the former Prime Minister the full chaos of the Boris Johnson saga is retold for those who wish to relive it and those who wish to know what was actually happening behind closed doors.
"Perhaps rather depressingly it demonstrates the chaos and ineptitude visible from the outside was very much reflected on the inside. Johnson at 10 offers an intimate portrait of life on the inside of his governorship and the inner workings at the heart of his government"
For many Brexit is what made Boris Johnson Prime Minister, he campaigned for leave and got to lead Britain out of the European Union.
But as Johnson at 10 makes clear he was not a serious believer in Brexit, rather in 2016, before he became PM, Johnson thought the UK would vote to remain and he could use his credentials as a leave campaigner to win support for his leadership challenge.
Upon hearing the news that Brexit had won, Johnson went into a panic, “Johnson was finding it hard to think straight. He had been up all night watching the coverage on television at his Islington home. Only towards dawn did he realise that Vote Leave would actually win…'What the hell is happening? He kept saying.”
Seeing the markets go down and David Cameron resign made Johnson panic more, “Oh s**t, we’ve got no plan. We haven’t thought about it. I didn’t think it would happen. Holy crap, what will we do?” the book reports he said. This sense of not thinking anything through is a theme often repeated throughout the book.
The chaotic nature of Johnson’s governance was perhaps best revealed by the early handling of the pandemic in 2020.
As was widely reported on Boris Johnson did not attend SAGE or COBRA meetings before March 2020 and so missed important briefings about the coronavirus.
Indeed there was a real leadership vacuum and by late February and early March, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s special adviser, had to step up and take over meetings in the PM’s absence.
The lack of attention to detail meant Johnson was not aware of the debates among the scientists, officials and government ministers in the run-up to the greatest public health emergency in generations.
Once Covid hit and Johnson was fully dealing with it, things did not improve. The issue of personal protection equipment or PPE for medical staff and testing for the virus in care homes was a major issue.
The then health secretary Matt Hancock said in one meeting everything was being taken care off and he was on top of everything. But as one official told the book authors, “Boris knew Matt was lying, but everybody was very conscious that there would be an inquiry, and that what they were saying would be recorded.”
"The account offered here is not entirely unflattering to Johnson, it does discuss his strengths too, but the issue is there is no detracting from the many failures of his administration"
Irresponsible behaviour also extended to Boris Johnson’s personal conduct. It became clear by the end of March 2020 that he had caught Covid-19, officials could hear him coughing a lot in his office.
But Johnson refused to stop working or take serious measures to restrict himself, officials still had to have in-person meetings with him and he insisted on having his weekly audience with the Queen in person.
“To the dismay of Palace officials deeply concerned at the risk of exposing the elderly Queen to the virus. After some convincing, both from the Palace and Cummings, Johnson acquiesced and agreed to hold the conversation remotely by phone.”
Boris Johnson sees illness as weakness and so perhaps this explains his behaviour here. Aside from Covid-19, the book examines Johnson’s actions elsewhere from domestic, economic and foreign policy.
From his initially warm-turned-cold relationship with Donald Trump to his personal push to army Ukraine in the run-up to the Russian invasion in 2022.
The book will not necessarily surprise the reader in the general sense, those who followed reporting on Johnson’s premiership will be all too familiar with the general themes.
Perhaps rather depressingly it demonstrates the chaos and ineptitude visible from the outside was very much reflected on the inside. Johnson at 10 offers an intimate portrait of life on the inside of his governorship and the inner workings at the heart of his government.
The account offered here is not entirely unflattering to Johnson, it does discuss his strengths too, but the issue is there is no detracting from the many failures of his administration.
As Seldon and Newell conclude, “Johnson had the potential, the aspirations and the opportunity to be one of Britain’s great Prime Ministers. His unequivocal exclusion from that club can be laid at the feet of no one else, but himself."
Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.
Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt