In ‘Johnson at 10’ Seldon and Newell have written a detailed account of Boris Johnson’s role in the EU referendum and as Prime Minister between 2019 and 2023. The authors have already published, in “May at 10: The Verdict”, a detailed account of Theresa May’s time as Prime Minister. The book on Johnson resulted from the authors’ interviews with over 200 people. It is a valuable history of the controversial period of the referendum in 2016 up to Johnson’s resignation in July 2023 and will be appreciated by current and future historians.
The authors divide their story into two periods: from Johnson’s involvement in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, up to the General Election of 2019, followed by his actions as Prime Minister, to his resignation in July 2022. The first period shows how he wanted to become involved in the referendum mainly because he was worried that rivals for the leadership of the Conservative party would prevent him from achieving his principal aim of becoming Leader. His particular worry was Michael Gove. The authors examine the extent to which Johnson believed in the importance of Britain leaving the EU. They encounter many people who believe Johnson never sincerely supported Brexit but used his deep involvement in the Leave campaign to further his own ambitions to become PM. They recount how Leavers (including Johnson) were surprised, even shocked that they won the referendum because they had not expected to win and they had no plans on how to implement their victory. Furthermore, Leavers had only a superficial understanding of the EU and how it had evolved.
Johnson shows his skills
In the Leave campaign, Johnson showed his people skills in a campaign for an issue in which he appeared to believe. He had shown these skills as Mayor of London for two terms and he developed a good team to assist him. However, the issues in London were far simpler than the issues at the referendum and in Government after Leave won. Johnson had never held a senior position in a company, in a government or organisation. His skills were restricted to writing, speaking and campaigning. Nevertheless, his participation in the Leave campaign was regarded by many as an essential reason why Leave won.
The authors emphasise the relevance of the report that Johnson’s Eton housemaster, Martin Hammond, wrote on him at the age of 16. “He really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies and sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility. I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligations which binds everyone else. He doesn’t have the instincts of a real scholar, and tends to ‘sell himself short’ when an exercise requires intellectual preparation. He is, in fact, pretty idle about it all. Efficiency and organisation have been constant problems.” If this perceptive report had been publicly available 20 years ago, the country would have been spared great trouble.
Three core traits
The authors also emphasise Johnson’s three core character traits, which were evident from early on. He had a skill exceptionally rare among political leaders to communicate using charisma and humour; he had an all-consuming self-absorption and self-belief that impelled him to be the most important person; and he had a lack of moral seriousness not mitigated by his razor-sharp intellect and beguiling rhetorical skills.
His lack of moral seriousness was evident when he agreed that Northern Ireland would remain subject to EU trading rules, thus creating a border between Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea. This enabled him to sign the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU and so ‘get Brexit done’. He never intended to observe this part of the Agreement and reneged on it once the UK had left the EU. It required Sunak to negotiate the Windsor clause to restore the situation. Johnson’s action was dishonourable and could be the first time a British PM has signed a treaty with a foreign power knowing he would not observe a key provision of it.
Johnson showed his ability to act dishonestly in trying to prorogue Parliament which the Supreme Court declared illegal. He showed up the weaknesses of parts of the British Constitution and he took advantage of them to further his aims. He refused to tell the British public that serious economic challenges lay ahead, following the exit from the EU.
The authors examine the many views on Johnson’s performance as PM after his big victory in the General Election of December 2019, which gave him a majority of 80. Johnson took big personal credit for achieving this victory. He never acknowledged that many voters were turned off voting Labour by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, resulting in the ‘red wall’ seats in the North of the country voting Conservative for the first time.
Johnson’s weakness as PM from 2020 showed up in his inability to explain clearly to his ministers and civil servants what he wanted to use Brexit for. His priorities were to improve the country’s infrastructure, to level up the less prosperous areas of the country, to solve the problem of social care and to promote patriotism. He announced he had a new plan for social care but, in reality, it did not exist and no progress was made on this long-standing problem.
War, pandemic, inflation: these three
The authors state that the information they gained from their talks with people involved in the Brexit period from 2020 showed that the process of Government was made considerably more difficult by the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine.
Johnson ruled with the benefit of a majority of 80 from January 2020. Despite this, he was unable to carry his civil servants with him in implementing his ideas on Brexit and his relationships with his Ministers became increasingly fraught. His lax observance of his own regulations on social distancing undermined his authority with his colleagues and his civil servants. Furthermore, his loose attitude towards public spending produced tensions and disputes. He became certain that Sunak was plotting against him, when in fact Sunak was in despair at Johnson’s lack of understanding of public finance. In the summer of 2022, a large number of Ministers resigned which made government impossible. Johnson was not brought down by any individual or group of individuals. He was brought down by himself.
This weighty book is a fascinating and impressive account of a tragic and damaging period of British government.
Review of “Johnson at 10 – the inside story” by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell, 582 pages