We are truly living through historic times. British politics, both domestically and internationally, is undergoing a shift that will be seen as one of the seminal moments in the British timeline; battle lines a century old are being re-drawn, international theory and policy three-quarters of a century old has been tacked about clearly and sharply, and the national narrative, its psyche, its sense of place in the world, has been has been re-cast. For three years, debate has raged and the country has almost torn itself apart. Yet whichever side you were on in the fierce arguments that have led to this moment, whatever you think of the direction now embarked upon, it is undeniable that one person has been at the front of it all – Boris Johnson. History will forever link these events to his leadership.
Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister who got Brexit passed. That in itself is enough to write him into the textbooks of the future. Yet not only did he preside over what is sure the be the passing of withdrawal from the EU through Parliament, but he was also the dominant figure in the campaign to leave the EU in the referendum. From beginning to end, he has been at the front of the movement to leave. You can see the string of jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing moments in a story which seems like a God-send to film-makers (though whether it is to be a positive or negative film remains to be seen): his declaration that he was supporting leave, when all of his family, his social circle, indeed the London-luvvy scene in which he moved and which dominated the media, were themselves declaring how ridiculous and dreadful the idea of leaving was; the victory against all the odds; the stabbing in the back by the then seeming man-of-integrity Michael Gove; the appointment as foreign secretary in a doomed government; the resignation from government when a deal that he said betrayed the country was struck; the collapse of the Tories to their knees at the European elections; the national debate on whether the Tories could ever recover from the pit that they found themselves in; the overwhelming election to leadership by a party desperate for a saviour; the struggle with kamikaze opposition to pass a Brexit deal in a minority government, facing a Parliamentary majority against Brexit, supreme court cases, and a percentage of the 48% who would stop at nothing to stop him; the calling of a snap election; the apparent surge of Labour as the election day drew nearer; the moment that the nation was shocked by the announcement of the exit poll.
In both the referendum and in the 2019 general election, the odds were stacked against him; indeed in both cases, the almost universally accepted analysis was that his task was impossible. It’s worth remembering how the question on the lips of most of the country’s leading journalists when he became leader was what could Johnson do that Theresa May couldn’t, especially when he led a minority in Parliament. Yet in both cases, he managed. The long-form questions and essays of the coming decades, if not centuries, will now no longer be “Was the failure of Brexit inevitable?”, but rather “Would Brexit have happened without Boris Johnson?”.
And the manner of his victory in the 2019 general election is another reason for which he will be remembered – another aspect of the legacy that he is now already certain to leave, despite having been Prime Minister for only five months. In this election, he has utterly re-drawn the political map. He has made lifelong Labour supporters vote Tory. Yes, the trend away from class-based politics was already underway, and yes, Brexit was a huge cause of this, but the fact remains that even as late as 2017 there was still huge revulsion in traditional Labour areas against the Tories. But in this election, seats that had never been anything but Labour and voters whose families had voted Labour for four generation and who had once used “Tory” as an insult, voted to support the Conservatives. Boris Johnson will also, therefore, be remembered as the Prime Minister who presented the Labour-heartland voters with a face of Conservatism that they could finally vote for.
A political earthquake has just taken place, both in terms of Britain’s outlook on the world and in terms of the dividing lines of its allegiance. Partly by circumstance, partly by his own actions, Boris Johnson has been the leader and the face of both of these tremendous shifts. History will remember him for this, just as it remembers Peel for the Corn Laws, Gladstone for Home Rule, and Thatcher for the defeat of Socialism. Like them, his legacy is assured. Unlike them, however, he has achieved this legacy at the beginning of his time in office, rather than by the end. With five years of government (at least) ahead of him and with a landslide majority, his legacy could well be far larger than it already is. Like it or not, and for better or worse, Boris Johnson is almost certain now to be a defining figure in British history.