After Johnson, the real task ahead for the UK is of managing decline

Just like Trump did with the Republican Party, Johnson has unleashed demons that will haunt the Conservatives – and Britain – for at least a generation

Britain’s allies made little attempt this week to conceal their relief at Boris Johnson’s impending departure from office. US president Joe Biden issued a statement on Johnson’s resignation in which he made no mention of the man himself. Taoiseach Micheál Martin all but welcomed his removal, saying there was now an opportunity “to return to the true spirit of partnership and mutual respect that is needed to underpin the gains of the Good Friday Agreement”.

With the exception of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who paid warm tribute to the British prime minister, it was hard to find a world leader with a good word to say about him. The leaders of France and Germany conspicuously made no comment at all.

The widespread relief at Johnson’s imminent departure reflects his unique ability to antagonise Britain’s friends. As figurehead of the Leave campaign in 2016, he was held chiefly responsible for Brexit and the disingenuous case made for it. As foreign secretary under Theresa May, he was in charge of setting a new course for Britain outside the EU, but instead of mending relationships with European neighbours he made them worse. His Europe policy, marked by parochial, nationalist point-scoring, appeared to be driven primarily by the need to get himself good headlines in the Daily Mail.

He was also one of the architects of “Global Britain”, the myth that the UK, freed from its European shackles, could stride out into the world and claim its rightful place with other great powers. Behind the idea was the dubious assumption that geography no longer mattered in trade and politics in a globalised world, but in reality “Global Britain” was never intended to be much more than a slogan – a reassuring rebuttal to the charge that Brexit amounted to a retreat from the world.


The six years since that referendum have shown that, on the contrary, Brexit has left London more isolated and less influential. By unmooring itself from one of the world’s three key geoeconomic players, one that had amplified its voice in the world, the UK found itself excluded from international conversations on everything from China to the global economy. It also made itself less useful to the United States, which had valued Britain’s role as a bridge to the rest of the EU. Since Brexit, the UK’s international position has been more uncertain than at any time since the end of the second World War. Finding a place for the UK in a post-Brexit world required the sort of hard strategic thinking that was beyond Johnson’s capabilities.

But his decisions as prime minister made things far worse. The plan to unilaterally break the international agreement setting out the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol in effect told the rest of the world that Britain under Johnson could not be trusted. His friendly relations with Donald Trump, his anti-immigrant policies at home and his closure of the globally respected Department of International Development all sent a similar message.

While Britain spoke about opening up to the world and championing a rules-based international order, Johnson’s actions suggested the very opposite. For a country that retains huge reserves of soft power, that was fatal. Even Johnson’s most admirable foreign policy decision – that the UK would stand fully behind Ukraine, with the military and financial aid that entailed – was rather undermined by his refusal to waive visa requirements for refugees fleeing Ukraine.

Craving popularity

Johnson’s craving for popularity left him incapable of levelling with people, but that is what his successor must do. It is perhaps too much to expect a Conservative leader to accept what is clear to the rest of the world – that Britain is poorer and more peripheral as a result of Brexit – but while Johnson pretended that he could restore the UK to former glories, the real task ahead is one of managing decline and finding a place for the country in world of heightened geopolitical competition.

It would be naive to think that the damage Johnson has done to Britain’s international standing can be quickly repaired. A competent, serious leader could change the mood of Britain’s dealings with its allies but, looking at the list of likely candidates, those qualities cannot be assumed in the next prime minister. In any event, the rot in the Conservative Party goes much deeper than Johnson.

He empowered hardline Eurosceptics by making their once-marginal ideology the party’s mainstream; they will continue to wield outsize influence long after he has gone. None of the likely successors is likely, for example, to step back from the threat to repudiate the Northern Ireland protocol, certainly not during a leadership campaign that will be fought on the extremes rather than in the centre ground. Just like Trump did with the Republican Party, Johnson has unleashed demons that will haunt the Conservatives – and Britain – for at least a generation.