Johnson’s time as MP
Despite his initial shortcomings, Johnson’s political career managed to gain momentum from the TV persona he had cultivated and became Member of Parliament for Henley in the 2001 election, a constituency in the South East of England, consisting of predominantly middle to upper class citizens. During his time as an MP, he partook in free voting on many poignant issues. In supporting the Gender Recognition Act 2004, he was seen employing a more socially liberal attitude than his Conservative counterparts. It has been said that Johnson’s liberal act was driven by his marriage to Marine Wheeler. Johnson was still vying for political popularity at the time. In the early 2000s, gender equality in Britain was almost an en vogue political issue, a product of the 90s 3rd wave of feminist thinking, meaning it was almost too backward to oppose even for the Conservative politician. The period saw celebrities across the nation posit this sense of “girl power”, exemplified by girl bands such as The Spice Girls. Johnson, rising to fame through a celebrity persona himself, knew all too well that adhering to political trends was tactful to rise to power in politics.
Further employing his wavering political views, it is also noteworthy that Johnson voted in support of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, after vocalising that he wouldn’t. The MP then went on to criticise Tony Blair for making unilateral and ultimately devastating decisions. It appears Johnson’s time on the backbench was full of positions that waxed and waned with general consensus, with no real grounding in his ideology at all. Johnson’s initial days in the House already illustrated him as an opportunist, seeking to become a career politician.
Mayor of London
After his Mayoral campaign that was centred around making transport safer, particularly focussing on suburban areas of London that had been neglected by the incumbent, Ken Livingston, In 2008, Johnson became the second Mayor of London and the first Conservative politician to hold the office since it was first created in 2000.
Johnson’s position as Mayor of London is where he really started to gain popularity from the British public, attracting an alternative demographic to the typical Tory voter. Opponents attributed Johnson’s success to a collective thought amongst the people that they were “voting for Boris because he is a laugh”, but in reality, Johnson was rising rather rapidly in politics. His critics had marred Johnson as a Thatcherite and used his old-Etonian background to dub him as an inappropriate figurehead for a multicultural city like London. Speaking out after the election, he vowed to change perceptions of himself and distanced himself from his party by stating that London had, in no way, transformed into a Conservative city overnight. Johnson knew that to stay popular in the capital, he had to come across as a softer, more relatable character.
It is difficult to deny Johnson’s time as Mayor as seeing significant developments to the city such as the night tube, which Johnson worked on improving and came into practice a year after he had left his position as Mayor. Though his work towards it was met with opposition from worker unions, the night tube’s success means the London underground now carries 1.5 billion passengers each year. His development work towards the night tube was, whilst praised by the everyday London commuter, was a reminder that Johnson was to ignore the unions. Similarly to his Conservative predecessors, this was a move that was likely going to gain him popularity amongst Conservative partner members in his vouch for party leader and ultimately, Prime Ministership.
In promoting a shift away from carbon emitted modes of transport in the city, Johnson introduced a cycling scheme commonly known as the ‘Boris Bikes’ which allowed Londoners to rent bikes from stations across the city. Though this move has been met with criticism that it targeted the middle class with docking stations appearing in wealthy areas of the city, the Boris Bikes became a household name and boosted his likeability, even amongst his opposition voters, making him appear as one of the ‘softer’ Tory politicians to date.
Critics would say his term saw no significant change from his preceding Mayor, pushing through self-serving projects such as an expensive footbridge and cable car. He has also been dubbed as employing a laissez faire approach to some of London’s most impactful events, such as the 2008 financial crash and 2011 London riots.
However, his inability to leave a legacy as Mayor did not diminish his rise to power in politics. The British public had already expressed a profound sense of relatability to Johnson despite him being an Eton-educated man from an upper-class background.
By 2015, when the EU referendum was soon to be held, Johnson joined the Leave campaign and vocally slandered those who did not agree including President Barack Obama and Remain Conservative and former Prime Minister, David Cameron. As part of his commitment to the Leave campaign, he stated that the UK would regain £350 million a week from withdrawing from the EU, a sum of money that he suggested could instead be given to the National Health Service (NHS). These claims were later proven inaccurate, and Johnson was accused of supplying false information to the public. As a staunch Leave advocate, he turned to using his popularity and charisma to convince the general public of the benefits of leaving the European Union through a language they spoke and on a topic held close to the hearts of a lot of Brits: the National Health Service. Here, Johnson was seen vying for ideological gain. Lying to the public on such a big scale to push through a pro-Brexit vote shows that Johnson knew he was a figure with public standing. The move also shows Johnson will stop at no end to appease his own political agenda.
Johnson’s rise to power and popularity is interesting. Like the archetype Tory politician, commonly so far from relating to the masses, Boris Johnson is too, a well-educated man. With deep-rooted and widespread anger amongst the British public seeking change in order to take back national control following the referendum, Johnson appealed to those sought to affirm the UK’s independence in dealing with world affairs. As a former foreign secretary, Johnson embodies British pride and protection of such. His pathway to becoming prime minister saw him harkening to Britain’s “glorious” past. This enabled him to mislead the public, make otherwise costly gaffes and get away with an array of his previous scandals.
In 2019, it was rumoured that Johnson had discussed his plans to challenge May in her snap general election with Donald Trump after repeatedly saying he would not run for Conservative leadership. This brings into question whether Johnson sought to be a career politician by rising to leadership or whether he saw a vacuum for power and grabbed it with both hands. Similar to his Friend, Donald Trump, Johnson displayed opportunist, populist tendencies in seeing a vacuum for power in the Conservative party following inner-party divisions and public disdain during the May era.
His friendship with the President set the tone for the type of Prime Minister he would be. Much like Trump, he rose to success through cultivating a television persona and fumbled into the political world by being controversial in rhetoric but having no distinguishing manifesto. His landslide election can be largely attributed to him being the embodiment of Brexit. The country was exhausted after years of May’s inability to carry out Brexit and turned to Johnson as a glimmer of hope to stabilize the chaos in the House of Commons. Unsurprisingly, the launch of his campaign was centred around his plans to carry Britain through a sufficient EU withdrawal agreement, a promise that his predecessor was unable to attain. He gained widespread support from the public by reiterating the necessity to finalise Brexit in order to regain voter trust. Gaining a newfound trust from the British working class in the 2019 general election, Boris Johnson was required to step very carefully on a middle ground between the social-policy demands of the working class and the typical Tory voter.
Johnson was almost untouchable in his domestic policymaking, breaking many of Labour’s ‘red wall’ (safe seats) with a large Conservative majority. He went on to make promises to boost the amount of money spent on national health care, a sector in which many working- and middle-class Brits value. However, in the 11-month long transition period that was given to settle an agreement with the EU post-withdrawal, Johnson was met with opposition from the EU Commission. After months of threatening a no-deal Brexit if he didn’t get his own way in the discussions, compromises were made on both Johnson and Ursula Von der Leyen’s sides to reach a settlement. Johnson’s patience with the negotiation process can be attributed to his commitment to deliver a Brexit that sought to please both Remain and Leave sides domestically while asserting his negotiating positions vis a vis Von Der Leyen and the EU. The no-deal Brexit that he had sought also produced inner-party divisions. Learning from the mistakes made by his predecessor May, Johnson toned down ideological preferences for the sake of upholding partisanship and popularity in the polls. The final deal saw Johnson compromise on areas such as the fisheries and ensuring ‘a level playing field’ for UK economies and their European counterparts.
But what will the future look like for Johnson now that he has accomplished the manifesto promise that won him the election? Brexit’s long-term effects on the UK’s economy and international standing will be firmly associated with Boris Johnson. Already, the leader of the devolved parliament of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is preparing for a Scottish independence referendum in hope of rejoining the EU. However, Johnson is seen attempting to exert his constitutional powers to restrict this. Johnson is already extremely unpopular north of the Scottish border with a net popularity of -59 in the polls, and a disdain towards him may be what drives many Scots to vote in favour of independence. Johnson is not popular for his defence of unionism, which may weaken his popularity in the north of the UK. Brexit is one of the only, if not the only, factor that accelerated Johnson to the highest position in UK politics, but could also ironically be the exact reason for his demise. Brexit could, on one hand, reinforce his hold on global power for a more medium-long term, in the lineage of his long-serving Conservative PMs such as Thatcher and Cameron, but should Johnson not deliver with economic strategy, his domestic standing could be damaged.
Just a year into his term, 2020 has already presented challenges to his seemingly impalpable leadership with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. After an overwhelming amount of success in the 2019 election and a surge in his popularity following the deliverance of Brexit, Johnson was met with an unprecedented stall to his political boom with the COVID-19 Pandemic. Johnson’s initial COVID response was slow in comparison to his European counterparts, which has proved to be a crucial reason for the devastating consequences. With a slight decrease in the R rate of the infection, the summer of 2020 saw Johnson vy to boost the economy with a “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, in which thousands of hospitality venues were granted a cut in VAT pay out and allowed them to offer significantly reduced pricing for customers. However, whether this was too soon on Johnson’s behalf has been highly debated, with COVID cases soaring, Johnson was forced to make a complete U-turn on plans in the autumn by placing the UK in another national lockdown. The prime minister repeated the same feeble behaviour that he did at the very start of the pandemic, and his hesitations proved costly with COVID deaths tolling above 100,000. In March 2021, a committee set up to investigate Johnson’s handling of the pandemic showed how Johnson’s test-and-trace system had been allocated 37 billion pounds but has still yet to prove any significant effects on the transmission of the virus in the UK.
A series of u-turns and at times, hypocrisy is what Johnson and his cabinet exemplified during the initial handling of the pandemic, resulting in a rise in mistrust towards the government. By the new year, Less than a quarter (22%) of the British public felt obliged to adhere to the government’s COVID rules. The previous year saw an unravelling of the Conservative party, one that mirrors the divisions under May. Are we watching as Johnson spirals into the same fate as his predecessor? Seemingly, even a stellar vaccination programme is unable to save Johnson in the polls.
Though Johnson’s initial handling of the pandemic was met with criticism, the UK’s vaccination programme went on to become the most successful in Europe. The scheme has come to be known as one that has been fast, ample and fair, and with the initial doses of the Oxford-founded AstraZeneca jab vaccinating the elderly and vulnerable, the turnout was especially high with a true “Made in Britain” feel. Johnson named the success of the UK producing the first approved Covid vaccine as a gift, “one of the many that a post-Brexit Britain is expected to bestow upon the world”. Though the production of the vaccine can be largely attributed to Oxford University’s world-leading research facilities, Johnson found a way to link its success to his own ideology and to boost his powerful global image, especially vis a vis Europe struggling to roll out a successful vaccination campaign. Whilst the success of the vaccination campaign in Britain is not solely due to the UK now being independent of the European Union, accusations that Johnson halted the exports of AstraZeneca doses to other European countries can go some way to explaining how to UKs vaccination programme soared above its European counterparts. Again, Johnson’s newfound position on the global stage has provided him with incentive to expand it further.
Introduced in 1948 by the Conservative’s opposition The Labour Party, the UK’s socialised National Health Service has always been a point of pride amongst the British public. The pandemic left the NHS, at many points, overwhelmed and understaffed and left the British public in fear of an NHS collapse. Johnson’s response? To arrange a nationwide ‘Clap for the NHS’ initiative every Thursday to praise frontline workers for their brave work. Though a large portion of the public adhered to the initiative, taking pots and pans to their front garden or balconies every Thursday evening to cheer for the NHS, the Left and NHS workers themselves saw this as a performative façade from Johnson, an attempt to thank the NHS, but with no real policy changes.
As of September 2021, 93 million doses have been supplied to Brits, allowing nightclubs and other hospitality to open and the UK to deal sufficiently with the pandemic despite new variants arising. The UK has now finally come to know a new sense of ‘normality’ after 18 months of lockdowns and restrictions. Despite Johnson now being able to breathe after a year of criticism for his handling of the pandemic, for the first time since January, the leading opposition, the Labour Party has now overtaken Johnson’s Conservative party by 2 points in the polls. Analysing Johnson’s post-covid economic policy (link to the economic page) and potential NHS reforms could begin to explain why.