How will history judge Boris Johnson? Badly. That is surely beyond doubt. Even if you took the worst traits from half a dozen former PMs, you would struggle to get one as bad as Johnson. There is the industrial scale lying, and the normalisation of it – trotting out a series of lies at PMQs like a tired parrot that watches too much GB news.
There was the appointment of many of the very worst ministers in UK history, from the sadistic cruelty of Priti Patel’s Rwanda policy to the haplessness of Gavin Williamson (e.g. opening schools for a single day during the January 2021 Covid wave then closing them again), the carbon-spewing airheadedness of Liz Truss flying a private jet to Australia, and of course Nadine “Big Fucking Idiot” Dorries (Russell T Davies’ words, not mine). Not forgetting Johnson’s flagrant and repeated breaking of rules he himself had set, having earlier failed to sack his handler Dominic Cummings for doing the same.
His apologists try to trivialise these matters, but the simple truth is they destroyed something incredibly precious, which was a rare sense that everyone from rich to poor, left to right and remain to leave, was for once united in a common cause, beating Covid-19. One day a worse pandemic will strike, and it is hard to see how lockdown would ever enjoy the same consensus support again. That is on Johnson, and will cost lives.
Johnson’s government squandered countless billions of pounds, giving them to cronies like Matt Hancock’s local pub landlord, instead of competent people, during the pandemic. They sat back and did nothing as the terrible cost of living crisis loomed ever larger on the horizon, with even the rabid right getting frustrated at the inaction, although that at least is not the fault of Johnson alone. This brings us to the central question of this article – was Boris Johnson the worst prime minister that the UK has ever had? Can we possibly have had anyone who was worse? Let us consider the other candidates.
Candidates from history
Lord North, Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden are often cited among the UK’s worst PMs, but all three were faced with crises overseas that they did not create. North is blamed for the loss of the colonies that became the USA. However, he ran Britain very successfully for ten years before the American War of Independence began, and moreover tried to resign when the war started, knowing himself unsuited to being a war leader. The King (George III) wouldn’t let him, and thus shares any blame for what happened. Also, US independence was surely a historical inevitability, and things might not have been any better had we won that war.
Chamberlain gets attacked for making peace with Hitler, but this ignores the fact that the UK was woefully unprepared for war at that time, making Chamberlain’s decision defensible, at least. There was no good option available. Eden is berated for the Suez crisis, which began when Egypt’s Nassar seized the canal. Without doubt Eden’s responses made the crisis worse, ultimately reducing the UK’s influence in the world. Of these three, strong defences can hence be made for the first two, and even Eden is guilty of no more than a series of misjudgements under pressure.
Then there are those who proved themselves incompetent and utterly unsuited to being PM, likes the Earls of Wilmington and Roseberry, and Viscount Goderich, mainly remembered for crying on the job and whom the King referred to as “a damned, snivelling, blubbering blockhead.” This hapless trio unsurprisingly didn’t last very long, and left very little mark on their country. The same is true of more competent PMs whose tenure was cut short by death (notably George Canning, who lasted just 118 days), serious illness (e.g. Andrew Bonar Law, 1922-23) or an imminent election (e.g., Alec Douglas-Home in 1963-64). Some commentators place these characters right at the bottom of best-to-worst prime minister lists (e.g. Iain Dale), but the fact is these men left little impact on the country, for good or ill, precisely because they weren’t in charge for very long.
The Hacker Test – a way to judge all prime ministers
Ultimately, prime ministers should be judged on whether they made the country better or worse. Their private lives, peccadillos, scandals and even corruption are far less important to the ordinary Brit than the ultimate outcome of their tenure. Lloyd George became terribly corrupt in his later years in charge, but he led us to victory in WW1, and is justly remembered as a great PM. Likewise, it doesn’t really matter to his record in charge how many illegitimate children Johnson had fathered, which is just as well because it is likely that no-one on Earth knows the true number, including the man himself (Johnson admits to seven children, but some suggest he has 11 or even 12, while still more might exist that only the mother knows he is the father of).
The questions that matter are, did they make our lives better, or worse? Did they solve more problems than they created? Did they leave the country in a better state than they found it? This last question must be tempered by acknowledgement that many PMs had to deal with crises not of their own making, including North, Chamberlain and Eden, and indeed Johnson with the pandemic. Hence, the question we really need to ask is, would we have done better, or worse, with someone else in charge?
Therefore, I introduce the Hacker Test. For any given PM, we imagine whether things would have turned out better or worse with an extremely bland individual running the country instead, for the whole of their tenure. Someone neither left nor right wing, and with no policy objectives beyond being liked and trying to make things more efficient. Someone with neither exceptional skills nor great character flaws. A person who would tread a timid path between expert opinion and Civil Service caution, should a major crisis arrive. Luckily fiction has provided us with exactly such a person: Jim Hacker from Yes, Prime Minister.
Applying the Hacker Test
Weak and short-lived PMs get middling scores here, because like Hacker they didn’t change much, though of course they trail behind PMs who actually achieved things. For example, despite his ineptness at fighting elections, Gordon Brown does well, because of his skilful work containing the financial crisis. It is hard to see Hacker doing better than Chamberlain, and he’d probably have tried to resign at the same time as North. But his far more timid approach would likely have ended the Suez crisis with a messy compromise, meaning he would have done better than Eden. That makes Eden the worst of this trio, by this measure, but it’s still possible to defend him by saying that it was not immediately clear what a better response to the crisis would have been. That defence does not apply to any of my worst three PMs of all time, selected below.
Controversial figures like Thatcher are harder to judge; she arguably resolved the problems of the seventies but created a whole new set which have endured until today. Blair, apart from the dark stain of Iraq (though we should remember it was Bush who actually started that war), scores very well for all the improvements he made at home. The only three prime ministers who score really terribly on the Hacker Test are the most recent three: Cameron, May and Johnson.
The terrible trio: PMs since 2010
David Cameron called a totally unnecessary referendum with disastrous consequences. Theresa May then interpreted that vote in the most extreme way possible, condemning the UK to economic misery and in my view, entrenching societal divisions over the vote when a better leader would have sought to smooth them over. Johnson lied, hired at least one known sex pest, cheated, squandered countless billions on contracts for his mates, ignored bullying by Priti Patel, demonstrated astonishing callousness, and broke his own rules, which may well hamper compliance with lockdowns should a worse pandemic arise in the future, putting all our lives at risk. We will never know how many pandemic deaths could have been avoided had he acted differently at the start, but we do know that more conscientious leaders like Nicola Sturgeon also made some fatal errors (she, at least, apologised for them).
Likewise, many commentators (including respectable medical sources) blame Cameron’s austerity for large numbers of avoidable deaths. Yet even if we exclude both sets of excess deaths on the grounds that they are debatable, all three of Johnson, Cameron and May fail the Hacker test spectacularly. The oncoming cost of living crisis alone would do it, but all three have many other things to answer for. Can anyone really doubt that our country would be in vastly better shape, had we simply trod water under Jim Hacker for the past twelve years?
Of this trio, May is probably the least worst. She inherited the Brexit problem from Cameron and though she was awful in how she handled it, and indeed everything else, she did not create a massive problem out of thin air, nor disgrace her office in multiple ways like Johnson. Even so, her terrible misjudgement in utterly ignoring the Remain 48% and pushing for the hardest possible Brexit is inexcusable, and unlike Eden’s follies this would have been (and indeed was) abundantly clear to any armchair observer from the outset.
The case for David Cameron
I once met David Cameron briefly, before he became PM. I found him cold and aloof. But he is surely a better human being than Johnson (a very low bar, admittedly) on the simple grounds that he has managed to stay faithful to one woman since he married (Google “David Cameron affair and the top hits are about things like Greensill), and he didn’t regularly insert racist and homophobic terms into newspaper columns before becoming an MP. Yet Cameron’s legacy as PM is utterly appalling. If anyone can name a problem as big as Brexit that another UK PM has conjured out of thin air, I’d love to hear about it (and would wonder why I hadn’t before). The problems associated with it are legion, and well known to anyone with their head not buried in the sand, so there is no need (nor space) to list them all here. As to the benefits, there are precisely none, unless you are a New Zealand farmer, or include the spectacle of Michael Gove waiting 30 hours for his flight home.
Must Cameron bear the blame alone? Of course, the likes of Farage, Johnson and the tabloids were agitating for it, but there have always been bad actors and malicious voices shouting from the sidelines, and indeed from within Parliament, throughout UK history. Decent leaders ignored them – look at John Major, whose position was far more precarious than Cameron’s, but who stood firm against malcontents within his party (“bastards” to use Major’s own word) throughout his tenure.
By contrast, Cameron waved the white flag at them without even a struggle, taking a reckless gamble whose terrible effects may last for a generation or more. Even worse, he made two awful blunders in how the referendum was run: first, it was technically advisory but understood by all to be binding, which allowed the Leave side leeway to cheat and lie, but made it impossible to hold them to account for it.
And second, Cameron failed to define Brexit in any way beyond leaving the EU, specifically failing to state whether freedom of movement the Single Market and the Customs Union would go, too. This allowed the Leavers to claim we’d stay in the Single Market before the vote, but demand our exit the second ballots were all in. Had Cameron deliberately set out to damage our country beyond repair, it is hard to see how he could have done a more thorough job.
Does the sum total of the damage inflicted by Boris Johnson exceed the harm caused by Brexit, and the form Cameron allowed it to take? The billions Johnson squandered are matched by our economic losses due to Brexit. He populated his cabinet with utterly awful and often incompetent people (see above), but this wasn’t an entirely new idea – Theresa May had appointed Britain’s worst ever Foreign Secretary three years earlier (a man named Boris Johnson who in that role is mainly remembered for an inexcusable gaffe that led to a doubling of Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe’s prison sentence).
As for his industrial scale lying, Cameron’s Brexit created the conditions whereby constant lying was not only acceptable from his successors, it seems to have become part of the job description, judging by the whoppers told by both Truss and Sunak during the campaign this summer. Theresa May was forced from office because she could not lie about Brexit effectively enough. Had Johnson not existed, the Tories would have chosen as PM the next best liar from their ranks. The contest to replace Johnson proves it – lying through your teeth is now very much part of the job description. So Johnson’s dishonesty has been enabled and encouraged by Cameron’s Brexit. The Tories, wedded to a massive lie, had no choice but to encourage and enable it.
As for Johnson’s shirking, laziness and basic incompetence – there’s an argument to be made that these made his tenure less damaging overall. Waiting in the wings is Liz Truss, who sheds policy convictions like autumn trees shed leaves, and who Cummings described as “close to properly crackers”. Her plans to bring back fracking and to frantically increase drilling for oil and gas, while still paying lip service to net zero, suggests a Johnsonian disregard for factual reality. She is far harder working than Johnson, and given the plans she seems to have, we will probably soon wish that she wasn’t. If she lasts long enough, she may yet surpass all of Johnson, May and Cameron for awfulness.
Still, Johnson’s legacy might in time sour even further than has Cameron’s, for example if, as noted above, if a second pandemic hits and is made worse by the lockdown non-compliance Johnson’s behaviour has encouraged, he could end up killing huge numbers of us. The existence of fanatical Johnson followers for who he can do no wrong (witness the frothing at the mouth online response to HIGNFY’s Johnson-themed episode) is worryingly reminiscent of Trump’s dangerous followers in the USA. However, such detachment from reality arguably began with Brexit and hence some blame lies with Cameron too.
Johnson was the most dishonest, corrupt and incompetent PM the UK has ever had, has trashed our international reputation, and is regarded by many as the worst ever. Yet the same voices also ask how he ever rose to occupy that hallowed position. The answer is Brexit. The answer is Cameron. Therefore, Boris Johnson is only the UK’s second worst PM in history. The crown for the very worst goes to David Cameron, for that single, colossal and wholly avoidable error of judgement for which every single one of us is paying a heavy, ongoing price.
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