History is unlikely to be kind to outgoing PM
The controversial Ulster Unionist MP for South Down in the 1980s, Enoch Powell, said that ultimately all political careers ended in failure.
That, he said, was the nature of the game. That was the fate that engulfed Boris Johnson this week, when the many bad judgement calls he made finally brought him down. His failure was entirely self-inflicted. History is unlikely to be kind to him when his term in the job he always wanted is assessed. He brought a unique style, but not necessarily the right style; former wives and lovers will take some pleasure in finally seeing him brought down over issues of integrity.
In the House of Commons one of the biggest smiles must be on the face of Theresa May, who Johnson brought down without compassion. He saw that as his path to ‘get Brexit done’ even if that meant putting a border down the Irish Sea. That remains an unnecessary decision and one his successor will still have to solve.
As someone who worked with Johnson a long time ago, a fair epitaph for his career is that he is the politician you would pick as a dinner companion with plenty of wine, but never suited to be prime minister.
As happened in his career in journalism, given enough rope he eventually hung himself. As a result we are left with a rudderless government at a crucial time for the economy and on the global front.
The best comment of the week on Johnson was also a maritime one, when Keir Starmer, cruelly, likened events in the Tory party to the ship leaving a sinking rat. Farmers have not done well under Johnson. In fact they have ended up, on balance, worse off than if they were still in the EU.
The acid test now will be whether with a new leader and prime minister there can be what might be termed a great reset of policy.
What is needed is a return to the days when Conservative MPs from the shire counties of England brought a pro-farming influence to Westminster. That has weakened over the years, but was extinguished by Johnson’s obsession with green dreams to please the urban elite he viewed as his power base. That is a big ask and it looks unlikely, unless there is a demand for a return to the era when one nation Conservatives were respected in the party. One way to rebuild confidence would be to actually show that the Brexit freedoms Johnson and his colleagues made so much of really can deliver practical outcomes. That is possible in agriculture, but six years from the referendum on EU membership there is no evidence of it happening. Instead we have the same green obsessions as the EU, but without its commitment to protecting farmers in trade deals and without its commitment to food security as an overarching priority.
Johnson always made much of how Brexit frees the UK from the bonds of Europe and the EU.
Being out of the single market maximises that flexibility, but it is not happening. Farmers will still look with some envy to France, which has gone it alone by banning the use of meat based terms like sausages and steak for plant-based products. This will not have a big impact on the global march of plant-based alternatives and can only be enforced for products made in France. However it is a sign the French government is still willing to ignore public criticism to make a stand for farmers.
This is not an easy road under EU rules. But because of Brexit no such restrictions exist in the UK.
The government could bring in similar legislation and make it even tougher without any challenge from the EU, the European Court or any of the EU’s 27 member states. This would be an example of the Brexit dividend Johnson sold before the referendum and of the freedom he claims ‘getting Brexit done’ has delivered. However the chances of any stand on behalf of agriculture are remote.
The voices in the shire countries that once brought sound rural sense are as dead now as the one nation Conservatives who saw politics in terms of what was right for the country and the party. A resurgence of this thinking around social conservatism might be the only way to restore confidence, but so deep are the roots of self-interest planted by Johnson it could take a period in opposition for that thinking to emerge.