If we look past the wild oscillations of daily news stories about Boris Johnson, in turns amusing and shocking, two basic truths stand out.
The first is that in his campaign to become Britain’s Prime Minister, he pushed his country to the edge of relevance in world affairs.
The second is that, as Prime Minister, he has tipped it over that edge.
Less than a decade ago, Britain made a difference. As a member of the European Union, it influenced the decisions of one of the world’s three great economies: larger than China, not much smaller than the United States. The United Kingdom’s much-vaunted “special relationship” with the US might have been less intense than in the days of Churchill and Roosevelt, but it still mattered – not least as a bridge between the US and Europe. When the US took, or considered, military action in Iraq, Syria, Libya or Afghanistan, it worked closely with Britain’s diplomats, politicians and armed forces.
More widely, Britain’s generous and much-admired programme of funding development in poorer countries enhanced its “soft power” influence. Harder to measure, but still pervasive, Britain also commanded respect for its leading role over centuries in developing the principles of human rights and demonstrating the virtues of a stable democracy.
All in all, the cliché was true: Britain “punched above its weight”. That was then. What about now? Let’s check the record.
Johnson was the most prominent face of the referendum campaign in 2016 to leave the European Union. He wavered until the last moment before deciding which side to support. Given how close was the result (52-48% for Brexit), his decision may have been decisive. Today, the UK makes up just 3% of the world economy – a far cry from the EU’s 21% when the UK was a member. When it comes to global negotiations on such issues as trade, banking, taxation, product standards and legal regulations, UK is now a rule-taker with little say in what happens.
As for London’s links with Washington, the “special relationship” is weaker than at any time in living memory. Apart from no longer providing the bridge between Washington and Brussels, Johnson has done nothing to repair his relations with Joe Biden. These were bad when Biden was Barack Obama’s Vice President, and deteriorated when Johnson went further than diplomacy required to befriend Donald Trump.
Johnson has since made things even worse by disowning the agreement he had reached with the EU over post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland. Biden, proud of his own Irish roots, has made no secret of his irritation with Johnson and the danger that the Northern Ireland peace process might break down.
If any doubt remained that the terms of trade had changed between London and Washington, it came with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan six months ago. The UK was not consulted about this decision or given advance notice of it.
That’s not all. In July 2020, Johnson’s administration abandoned the hitherto bipartisan commitment – and his own 2019 election manifesto promise – to spend 0.7% of national income on development aid for poorer countries. It reduced its aid spending by a quarter. Humanitarian aid for the Yemen was cut by 60%, and for almost half a million people struggling to survive in Syria by 70%. The cuts were condemned by all three living Conservative ex-Prime Ministers: John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May.
The UK’s post-Brexit relations with the EU have also suffered, and not just over the Northern Ireland Protocol. A war of words over asylum seekers making the perilous journey in small dinghies across the Channel from France to England has poisoned Johnson’s relations with Emmanuel Macron. Shortly before Christmas, the French media reported that France’s president had called Johnson a “clown” with “the attitude of a vulgarian”. The reports have not been denied.
At home, Johnson has adopted a distinctive approach to the norms of accepted behaviour. He suspended meetings of Parliament at the height of the Brexit drama, shortly after he became Prime Minister – only to be overruled by the Supreme Court which decided unanimously that he had acted illegally. Just over a year ago he awarded a peerage to Peter Cruddas, a party donor, overruling the Lords Appointments Commission, which had judged Cruddas unsuitable for the House of Lords. Johnson is the first Prime Minister to defy the Commission’s ruling.
In recent weeks, he has made false statements about Britain’s economic growth, employment figures, support for poor families struggling to keep warm, the crime rate, his plans for new hospitals – and ignored the convention that false statements should be corrected. His failure to apologise for falsely accusing Sir Keir Starmer of blocking the prosecution of Jimmy Savile led to the resignation of Munira Mirza, his head of policy, and ugly scenes of a mob attacking Starmer as a “paedo protector”.
After all that, one might think that Johnson’s days as Prime Minister would be numbered. One would be right – but not because of his political record. Instead, he has been caught breaking the lockdown laws he imposed on the country to minimise the impact of Covid.
Careful listeners can hear the echo of Al Capone. The gangster was imprisoned for evading taxes, not murder and racketeering; Johnson risks being turfed from office for attending illegal parties – and lying about the Leader of the Opposition – not for sinking the UK into the pit of irrelevance.
Yet, as with Capone, the specific scandal likely to bring Johnson down illuminates his true character. Throughout his careers as journalist and politician, he has repeatedly confirmed the verdict of one of his school teachers four decades ago: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”.
We are, then, edging towards the end of Johnson’s career in circumstances that have little to do with the big things he has done to diminish Britain’s status, but much to do with his lifelong personality.
Once he has gone, can the UK recover its influence and, once again, “punch above its weight”? An optimist would point to the UK’s place as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and to its status as one of Western Europe’s two nuclear powers. These provide the foundations for some sort of recovery. A reversal of the cuts in overseas aid would help. But, as long as the UK remains outside the EU, the scope for reversing the effects of Johnson’s premiership is limited.
More fundamentally, countries are in one respect like people and companies. Trust and respect, built up gradually over the years, are easy to destroy – but painfully slow to revive.
An earlier version of this blog was published by the Carnegie Endowment, based in Washington DC, for its international audience