Boris Johnson has been called many uncomplimentary things, charlatan and clown being among the milder epithets. Even those sympathetic to his current agenda are liable to use terms like “unprincipled opportunist.”
However, another descriptor is becoming increasingly apt. Johnson is shaping up to be a consequential politician, defined as one who makes a difference. A potentially lasting difference.
Take the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on Brexit – to leave the European Union. Without Johnson’s leadership role, it’s doubtful that Leave would’ve carried the day.
Granted, he initially equivocated as to which side he’d take. But when he chose, he was an effective spokesman for a campaign that prevailed against the expectations of the powerful.
Still, as recently as this summer the smart money suggested that Brexit was doomed. Despite Leave’s referendum victory, then-prime minister Theresa May’s failure to deliver had exposed the folly of it all. Or so the narrative went.
Thus when Johnson replaced May as Conservative leader and prime minister this July, he faced two imperatives.
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One was to convince the European Union to reopen the unacceptable withdrawal deal it had negotiated with May. The other was to change the complexion of parliament, switching its orientation from Remain to Leave.
Both challenges were widely viewed as tall orders. Maybe impossible.
But Johnson delivered.
Despite repeated European declarations to the contrary, the withdrawal deal was reopened and some material changes were made. Most of the deal’s provisions may be similar to May’s, but the differences are important. The potential for ensnaring the entire U.K. in a permanent customs union with the EU is gone. And the ability for the U.K. to go its own way with respect to regulation and trade agreements is greater.
As for parliament, by purging hard-line Remain members from Conservative ranks and then winning a thumping general election victory, Johnson has radically changed the Westminster equation. He now has a parliament susceptible to getting Brexit done.
In terms of scope, the Conservative vote share is the party’s highest in 40 years. And the geographical distribution is particularly interesting.
Johnson picked up 48 seats in England, many of them in the hitherto impregnable Labour heartland. Politically, it’s a coup akin to Donald Trump’s 2016 piercing of the Democrat’s supposedly unassailable blue wall in the American Midwest.
Blyth Valley is an excellent example of what happened.
A former coal mining community in England’s northeast, the seat had never gone Conservative. And although the constituency had overwhelmingly voted for Brexit, Labour – which was then pretending to have accepted the referendum result – easily retained it in 2017’s general election.
Things have since changed. Labour’s mask has slipped such that its hostility to Brexit has become obvious. So Blyth Valley flipped to Johnson’s Conservatives, overturning a prior Labour majority of almost 8,000 votes in the process.
Switches of this sort may turn out to be purely transactional. Once Brexit is safely implemented, these historical Labour seats might revert to form.
But if – and it’s an enormous if – Johnson is serious about rebalancing Conservative policy to put greater emphasis on working-class priorities, then it’s a different ballgame. Without its traditional heartland, Labour will become electorally toothless and British politics will have been fundamentally realigned. To paraphrase English political journalist James Forsyth, values will replace class as the primary determinant of people’s party allegiances.
And, of course, there’s the potential for unintended consequences.
While the prospect is still suppositional, Brexit could be the tipping point for enabling Scottish independence and Northern Ireland opting to join the Republic of Ireland. In effect, the end of the U.K. as we’ve long known it.
None of this necessarily makes Johnson an admirable figure. Or a historically benign one.
If you think increased European integration is a good thing, you won’t be well disposed to the man who got Brexit done. But if you believe the EU progressively smothers nation states and shifts power from elected national parliaments, you’ll have a different view.
The same applies to your perspective on the U.K.’s possible breakup. What some will see as a tragedy, others will celebrate as a historically natural development. And many won’t much care either way.
Prime ministers often come and go without making a material difference in the countries they ruled. It’s as if they were never there.
For better or worse, Johnson looks like an exception.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.