Opinion

Boris Johnson's legacy

The international media mulls a rocky tenure

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is officially gone from 10 Downing Street, thus concluding his scandal-filled tenure marked by COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and — lest we forget — the hugely-consequential EU secession campaign that was Brexit.

Despite a penchant for zippy one-liners (and other humanizing qualities), the floppy-haired Johnson was ultimately a polarizing political figure who boasted a complicated relationship with the public he led. And as the U.K. ushers in a fresh era of leadership under the newly-appointed Liz Truss, one might wonder how pundits and voters will immortalize BoJo's truncated turn as premier — one that started with a bang, but ended with a crash.

Below, the international media ponders such a legacy.

Speaking of Brexit …

For many, it's almost impossible to separate Johnson's enduring impact from his execution of Brexit, a sizable political feat that simultaneously appeased his supporters but further alienated his critics.

"Johnson's dramatic exit notwithstanding, no singular achievement seems to tower over his legacy more so than securing Brexit — because, without him, it may never have happened," Yasmeen Serhan wrote for Time. In fact, Johnson's choice to support Vote Leave and his accompanying "11th-hour" newspaper column served as a "pivotal" and perhaps deciding moment in the debate. As the public continues to weigh the referendum's long-term consequences, it seems obvious that "the outcome of Brexit and the impact it has on the future unity of the U.K. will weigh heavily on Johnson's legacy, not least if he comes to be remembered as the prime minister who ushered in a return of unrest in Northern Ireland or the breakup of the U.K.," Serhan argued.

"Evaluating Johnson's legacy really amounts to evaluating Brexit, since his fingerprints were all over the departure,'' added New York Times opinion writer Peter Coy. Long after "the world has forgotten the tousled hair, the quotations in Homeric Greek, the fibs, fabrications, and scandals," Johnson will be remembered for his work pulling Britain from the EU.

He threw away the playbook

Though Brexit remains undoubtedly significant in determining BoJo's legacy, "perhaps even more consequential" is the impact he's had "on British politics itself," Serhan continued for Time. Johnson was popular because he successfully pitched himself as an outsider, despite being an insider, and "wasn't afraid to play fast and loose with longstanding norms and traditions, especially when he saw them as a barrier to his political goals." Further, he broke the "political mold," in ways both good and bad, thus modeling "how future prime ministers could do the same." 

His leadership "certainly widened the field of what is possible for future prime ministers," Anand Menon, director of think tank U.K. in a Changing Europe, told Serhan. "He has questioned the rules of the game and if someone else wants to come in and see how far they can stretch the system, I think it's more stretchy now than it was before."

Shame and lies

In the end, Johnson's resignation ends a "dismal and destructive time for British democracy," said The Guardian editorial board. Save for his support for Ukraine and his work battling COVID, BoJo's government "has been without a meaningful agenda" since the conclusion of Brexit. Voters will not soon forget his callous and contemptuous approach to the electorate, nor will they "forgive" his fellow Conservative party members "who were so long complicit in the pretense that Britain had a functional prime minister and a respectable government." Ultimately, a "thorough regime change" is needed to rid of the stench he's left behind.

Jack Blanchard, U.K. editor at Politico., issued a somewhat-concurring opinion back in July: "Johnson could, and did, lie for England" …  and "in Westminster, it is the lies that will be the legacy." 

The rest is still unwritten

No one knows exactly what Johnson might do next, but "few doubt that he will cast a long shadow from the sidelines," Therese Raphael posited for Bloomberg. And "that has made his legacy contested territory."

In some ways, of course, "Brexit, and the politics it unleashed, represent such a historic pivot that it must be at the center of Johnson's legacy." But there was also some "vision to note," like certain government attempts to correct income and opportunity gaps, as well as praiseworthy efforts to support Ukraine, which "revealed a keen sense of the geopolitical moment."

Despite his exit, it's unlikely Johnson "stays very quiet for long," Raphael wagers. For one thing, it's not like he'll have trouble communicating with his base; the media will cover and analyze every one of his sideline dispatches, which could at any given moment prove devastating to Truss or some other political hopeful alike. But "in the meantime, the Tories will keep debating Johnson's legacy, some hoping to use it to bury him and others to resurrect a stronger version from the ashes of failure," Raphael mused. "Liz Truss rode to power on his coattails, but she'll be nervously looking over her shoulder at what he does next."

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