One of the most brutal facts of British political life is that prime ministers often remember only one thing. Neville Chamberlain and appeasement. Winston Churchill and the victory of World War II. Clement Attlee and the welfare state. Tony Blair and Iraq. Gordon Brown and the global financial crisis. David Cameron and the Brexit referendum. Theresa May and her inability to deal with its consequences. For Boris Johnson, that one thing will be getting Brexit done.
By ending nearly 50 years of Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU), turning it from Europe’s so-called ‘awkward partner’ to an independent sovereign nation-state, the The stark reality is that Boris Johnson will go down in the history books as the Prime Minister who can genuinely claim to have fundamentally changed the direction of Britain. Whether positive or negative, the consequences of his tenure as Prime Minister will continue to be felt for decades, if not centuries, to come.
Along the way, he also reshaped his party, his electorate and his political geography. It is true that Britain’s realignment was underway long before Johnson entered No 10. The Conservative Party’s invasion of Labor’s heartland had not only been visible under Theresa May, but perhaps attributed to growing levels of apathy among British workers and non-graduates, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, many of whom abandoned New Labor over its support for mass immigration and EU membership. But it was Johnson who, through the force of his charisma, rallied more of them to the Conservative Party during the tumultuous months of 2019.
As my own analysis of UK election survey data has shown, feeling positive about Boris Johnson was not only one of the most important drivers of the Brexit vote, but one of the the most important of the passage from Labor to the Conservatives in 2019. “My constituents did not vote for the Conservative Party”, summarizes both an MP. “They voted for Boris.” It was finally Johnson who doubled realignment, giving his party an electorate that was and remains demographically and ideologically different from that which rallied to David Cameron four years earlier.Post-Brexit conservatism has become much more working class, unqualified, older, more white, less urban and far more culturally conservative than pre-Brexit conservatism ever was.
Yet while Johnson purposely reshaped his party around this electorate, he never really knew what to do with it or where to take it. What its followers call The Project never became intellectually coherent or ideologically sophisticated. Cake-ism became the inevitable consequence of a premiership that had no serious intellectual roots or overarching philosophical framework. The glaring absence of serious thinkers in his entourage found expression in a long list of thin, short-sighted and sometimes openly contradictory policies that never lived up to the wishes of his party’s new voters.
While they wanted less immigration, he gave them more. While they enjoyed aspiration and economic freedom, it imposed on them the highest tax burden since the 1950s. While they instinctively distrusted the state; he put him on steroids. While they expected a serious strategy for Leveling Up, it consistently failed to provide one. While they wanted a strong resistance against the illiberalism of “woke” radical progressivism, he seemed reluctant to get involved. While they thought they had elected a political fighter, he too often worried about how he was perceived by cosmopolitan liberals. While they thought he was on their side, he seemed to treat them with contempt. And while they wanted an economy and a system that did more for ordinary workers, he often seemed more interested in building Singapore on the Thames. Consistently, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has leaned more right on the economy and more left on culture than many of his new voters.
This explains why the reformist, if not revolutionary, prime ministership that many of these voters had come to expect – a post that saw Brexit not as the final destination but as a gateway to far-reaching reforms of the whole system – never materialized. Establishment liberals, conservative elites and the donor class were never aligned with the more radical aspirations of voters mobilized by Johnson. No. 10’s repeated resets have consistently prioritized personnel changes over more ambitious shifts in political philosophy that might have better positioned the party for its new electorate. Meanwhile, the growing divide between the liberal view of Brexit and the culturally more conservative view that unites many Tory voters has never been addressed or even understood. Even today, that tension continues to sit at the heart of the party, like an unexploded bomb from World War II, waiting to explode unexpectedly in the face of Johnson’s eventual successor.
While many Tories today will breathe a sigh of relief that the Johnson regime is finally coming to an end, they will be forced to operate under the realignment he mobilized. There is simply no longer any way forward for the Conservatives, any possibility for them to retain power, which does not involve repairing their relationship with the people who voted for Johnson less than three years ago and who certainly do not want to return to the neoliberal conservatism of the 1980s and 2010s. Whether any of Johnson’s potential successors can hold and retain this territory remains an open question.
Many of those voters today will feel disappointed, discouraged, disillusioned and hopeless. And, in the days to come, they are the ones who will remember Boris Johnson not as a maverick who changed the direction of the country, but as the man who had a unique opportunity to fundamentally reshape his party, his politics and the country but which, in the end, squandered it. And for much of the country, it could yet become the one thing that defines Boris Johnson.