Two years ago, during the first Covid lockdown, Boris Johnson came face to face with a reality which until that moment he had seemed reluctant to acknowledge: the unwelcome truth that he was not the all-powerful prime minister of the whole UK. Because health policy is a returned matter, on Covid he was prime minister of England alone.
To be an effective leader, therefore, he would have to go against his instincts and cooperate. Predictably, Johnson proved to be not very good at cooperating, and as a result of his effectiveness suffered. The imposition and then the easing of Covid restrictions around the UK became ever-more confused and politically driven. A global health problem became entangled with Johnson’s denialism, with the narcissism of small differences between the governments, and with his increasingly chaotic management of the Tory party at Westminster. In short, Johnson himself became part of the problem of fighting Covid.
Two years on, we are again witnessing something similar. This time, the challenge to good governance and effective statecraft is playing out on the European stage, not the domestic one. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Brexit had allowed Johnson to promote a foreign policy that indulged his instincts as a British prime minister of the old school as he imagined it, strutting his verbose stuff – or at least as much as international Covid restrictions would allow – as the leader of what he portrays as a newly restored and independent global power. But war in Europe has challenged that illusion head on.
In the task of confronting Russian aggression and rebuilding a democratic Ukraine, the route to effectiveness also requires clear-headed cooperation and alliance-building. That’s not easy among so many nations with different interests and histories. But it means that it is more important than usual to build trust between European nations for the long term. Yet in Johnson Britain has a leader who is ill-suited to that overridingly necessary cooperative task. He is, to put it mildly, an unreliable ally.
If one moment embodied this problem in visual terms it was that footage of a seemingly isolated Johnson during the official photo sessions at the Nato summit in Brussels on 24 March. For a few embarrassing moments he is apparently standing on his own, looking into the middle distance for someone to talk to among the assembling western leaders who greet one another with handshakes and smiles. Johnson’s embarrassment was only brief and should not be overstated, but the image spoke to larger realities – to the self-inflicted isolation of Britain on the world stage after Brexit, and to a level of undoubted suspicion towards Johnson among foreign governments.
This is not to imply that Johnson or Britain have played an unimportant role in the Ukraine conflict so far, let alone a reprehensible one. Britain’s military support for Ukraine before and after the invasion has been weighty, important and ongoing. London is also said to be playing a significant role in pressing others to take war crimes cases to the international criminal court. And Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has repeatedly and publicly praised the UK’s and Johnson’s contributions.
None the picture is mixed. Britain was slow to impose strong sanctions, on which the pace has mostly been made by the US, which imposed further measures against Russian banks and officials on Wednesday, and by the EU, which this week signaled a ban on Russian coal and ships that may become a complete embargo on Russian fossil fuel products. Britain also continues to be a very deliberate laggard on refugees, imposing visa conditions of a complexity and severity unmatched by any other European country.
Nor has Britain matched its anti-Russian rhetoric with evidence of the kind of serious long-term strategic resets on which the EU and Germany have embarked. Johnson is expected to say important things on energy on Thursday, but there is no evidence that he is driving the international effort. That is hardly surprising, since most of the key decisions on sanctions are being made by Washington and Brussels. Britain has not got a seat at those tables. This is in part the result of Brexit and in part a reflection on Johnson’s own character. In truth the two cannot be separated.
Just as Johnson eventually realized two years ago that he could not make Covid policy for the whole of the UK, so today he is now almost certainly aware that Brexit is not the success that he claimed it would be. The government’s benefits of Brexit document, published in January, embodies this absurdity in more than 100 glossy pages, full of inflated claims and pie-in-the-sky speculations. By indulging these nonsenses, Johnson leaves the door open for the Conservative right to drive through a deregulatory economic agenda that will simply make things worse. But he also weakens Britain’s ability to play its part alongside those who should be its allies.
The evidence of Brexit’s damage is in plain sight. This is particularly true in the UK economy, where serious labor shortages in low-skill sectors are now running into the rising cost of food caused by Covid, higher fuel prices and Ukraine-related shortages. Growth forecasts have been revised downwards, supply chains are under growing pressure, and even Rishi Sunak admitted last week that Britain’s poor trading performance might in part be the result of Brexit. Although Britain’s cost-of-living crisis cannot be entirely laid at Brexit’s door, it is indisputable that it is a significant part of the problem and, moreover, that there is no end in sight of the difficulties it is causing.
The same is true of the problems over Britain’s borders, control of which was supposedly the great prize of Brexit. It seems barely to have dawned on Johnson that secure borders are only secure if there are effective controls on both sides and that this requires cooperation, especially with Ireland and France. Instead, both are treated almost with indifference. If Britain reneges on the Northern Ireland protocol or fails to implement it while insisting that Russia must respect and uphold international law, the chorus of contempt will stretch from the Atlantic to the Urals and it will be fully deserved.
The tragedy, at a time when the whole of Europe has to pull together to protect its values and its freedoms against Russia, is that Britain under Johnson is, at best, failing to play the important role in this alliance for which its size and resources equip it At worst, by continuing to play Brexit games under a leader for whom others have so little respect or trust, it may even be undermining an alliance on which, in the end, we will all depend.