Boris Johnson and the myth of ‘getting Brexit done’

In departing the premiership, Boris Johnson and his supporters will present a key part of his legacy as ‘getting Brexit done’. But, Meg Russell argues, this claim is distinctly dubious. Johnson helped secure the Leave victory in 2016, but was subsequently central to blocking Theresa May’s efforts to implement the result. Meanwhile his own Brexit deal was agreed despite his own team recognising its flaws, and leaves major ongoing problems regarding Northern Ireland.

As Boris Johnson steps down, how will his time in office be remembered? His premiership collapsed in July under a weight of allegations about honesty and integrity, which had dogged his record and were cited by a flood of ministers resigning from his government. His constitutional legacy was a troubled one, and his attitude to upholding important norms was lamented by many key figures. But these qualities were often seen as the Achilles heel of a Conservative leader otherwise imbued with winning qualities. In particular, many would cite his most important legacy as ‘getting Brexit done’, and using that pledge to win his party a sizeable majority in the general election of December 2019. During the first Sky debate of the recent Conservative Party leadership contest, while none of the five candidates raised their hand to say that they would be happy for Johnson to serve in their Cabinet, Penny Mordaunt nonetheless interrupted to insist that ‘he got Brexit done’. In his own valedictory tweet following the election of Liz Truss, Johnson celebrated ‘winning the biggest majority for decades, [and] getting Brexit done’.

But actually, what was Johnson’s Brexit record? A closer inspection shows good reason to question this epitaph, as the leader who succeeded where others had failed, delivered Brexit and discovered a winning election formula. Certainly, Britain’s membership of the EU ended on his watch; and yes, the election victory was resounding. But to a significant extent, these achievements rested on the selfsame qualities that came to dog him later. Ultimately, Johnson’s hastily-agreed deal generated major tensions over the status of Northern Ireland which remain highly problematic today.

Johnson the campaigner

From the very outset, when Johnson famously chose a Telegraph column endorsing, rather than rejecting, Brexit, he was the best-known face of the 2016 Leave campaign. A star of the TV debates during the referendum campaign, he was found at the time to be the most trusted politician on Brexit. Subsequent analysis suggested that his involvement on that side of the argument may well have been decisive in the narrow result.

After the referendum, Theresa May symbolically appointed Johnson to her Cabinet as Foreign Secretary. Alongside other Brexit supporters such as David Davis, Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom, his presence gave credibility to her positioning as a Prime Minister who may have been a (relatively lukewarm) Remain supporter, but was determined to respect the referendum mandate, and deliver on the result.

Johnson the rebel backbencher

Subsequently, however, Johnson quit the Cabinet over May’s Brexit proposals (a day after Brexit Secretary David Davis), citing the compromises that she had reached over continued EU regulatory alignment, with the aim of maintaining stability in Northern Ireland. When her deal was put to the House of Commons in December 2018, Johnson was the first Conservative on his feet to denounce it as ‘a national humiliation that makes a mockery of Brexit’, suggesting that ‘[i]t is a wonder, frankly, that any democratic politician could conceivably vote for this deal’. These words were again, doubtless, influential, contributing to May’s crushing Commons defeat, in which 118 Conservatives, including her soon-to-be successor, voted against her. Notwithstanding that the majority of Tory MPs – 196 – were prepared to accept her compromise and support the deal.

In the ensuing months, parliament descended into chaos over Brexit. May’s deal was defeated twice more, with Johnson moving to support it only the third time round. Other key Brexiteers, such as David Davis and Graham Brady, switched to support on the second occasion, while Fox, Gove and Leadsom stuck with May’s Cabinet essentially to the bitter end. But Johnson was always a looming presence, criticising from the sidelines. When May complained that MPs were blocking Brexit, Johnson wrote in the Telegraph that this was ‘both shameful, and inaccurate’.

Johnson the Prime Minister

In the battle to replace Theresa May, Johnson presented himself as the man determined to deliver Brexit at all costs. By then his own role in blocking her deal was already being erased from the public mind. He repeatedly spoke approvingly of the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, and indeed supported this in parliamentary votes before becoming Prime Minister. But that outcome was widely expected to create major economic disruption, and would have necessitated a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which was almost universally condemned as unacceptable. Hence parliament heavily defeated the prospect of no deal on several occasions.

This forced Johnson into negotiating an alternative Brexit deal, which was agreed in October 2019. This is a key moment in cementing the myth of his magic Brexit touch. Member of the hardline Eurosceptic ERG (European Research Group) Mark Francois has credited Johnson with having ‘played a blinder’ in the negotiations with the EU to achieve this deal. But actually it effectively returned to an EU proposal previously rejected by Theresa May, and by her confidence and supply partners the DUP –  for involving significant regulatory divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which would necessitate a customs border down the Irish Sea. Johnson insisted repeatedly that this border problem did not exist. As far back as the referendum campaign, he had dismissed claims that Brexit could be destabilising for Northern Ireland, claiming that border arrangements would be left ‘absolutely unchanged’. He later told the DUP’s 2018 annual conference that a border down the Irish Sea would be completely unacceptable. Even during the 2019 general election – when confronted by claims that paperwork would be required at the border – he advised those affected to ‘throw it in the bin’. Francois writes that ERG members themselves actually viewed Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol as a problem, but were privately promised that he would seek to overturn it later, which persuaded them reluctantly to support his deal.

Johnson’s general election manifesto in 2019, which delivered his ‘mandate’ of 14 million votes – his main argument in July for not being deposed as Conservative leader – complained (in stark contrast to his earlier comments) that the UK had been ‘paralysed by a broken Parliament that simply refuses to deliver Brexit’, and that ‘MPs ha[d] devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people’. In truth, Brexit had been delayed primarily by divisions in the Conservative parliamentary party, with Johnson among those who had delayed it. His pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ was therefore a promise to unblock an obstacle that he himself had been key to creating. The majority of Conservative MPs had dutifully voted for May’s deal on all three occasions, including some whom Johnson subsequently ejected from the party for supporting moves to prevent a no-deal Brexit – among them, several former members of her Cabinet.

Theresa May’s deal may have failed to satisfy various of her Brexit hardliners; but it was designed precisely to avoid the kind of problems currently being faced on the Northern Ireland Protocol as a result of Johnson’s deal. Notwithstanding his presentation of it as ‘oven ready’, key members of his team subsequently admitted that they recognised the problems with the deal at the time, but hoped to revisit them later. It was afterall on this basis that Johnson seemed to succeed in bringing the ERG on board. The deal has subsequently created immense difficulties in Northern Ireland; while attempts to unilaterally rewrite the Protocol raise huge ongoing problems regarding compliance with international law. Theresa May herself is – perhaps understandably – among those who have spoken out against such plans.

Johnson’s Brexit legacy

So it might be said that Boris Johnson’s main contributions on Brexit were threefold. First, to convince the public to support it in 2016. Second, to destabilise his predecessor by refusing to join most other Conservative MPs in accepting the compromise that she had reached to put it into effect. Third, to sell to the public as ‘oven ready’ an alternative that May had already rejected and which was known at the time to be anything but. This may have secured an impressive Conservative majority in 2019, but one based on a distinctly dubious prospectus. The lasting effects are that Brexit remains far from ‘done’, while parliament’s reputation has taken a beating – principally for the blocking tactics in which Johnson himself played a central part.

Johnson’s premiership finally collapsed amid widespread concerns about honesty and integrity. During its dying days early this summer his colleagues lamented Johnson’s dual tendencies of denying previously-held positions, and – when faced with difficulties – of shifting the blame onto someone else. On closer inspection, his achievements on Brexit may be viewed as less of an outlier, and instead as wholly consistent with these now-familiar flaws.

About the author

Professor Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit and Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe. Her book with Lisa James, The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit, will be published by Oxford University Press in March.

Featured image credit: Prime Minister Boris Johnson Leaving No. 10, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by UK Prime Minister.