As a student of the classics, Boris Johnson may one day manage to smile wryly at how the pinnacle of his prime ministership came the same week he sowed the seeds that would ultimately lead to the political nadir of today. Although then again, judging by the bitter and graceless nature of today’s resignation speech, such self-reflection will likely remain beyond him.
It was on the evening of November 2 that pride met Nemesis. Fresh off of a successful two days at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow during which he warned ‘humanity has long run out of time on climate change’, joked he could still be in Downing Street in 2060 and called on his compatriot leaders to make this ‘moment when we have irrefutably begun to turn the tide and start the fight against climate change’ Boris Johnson took a private jet to London so he could attend a party former colleagues from The telegraph of the day.
There, his former editor, Lord Charles Moore, reportedly convinced Johnson to try to change parliamentary rules to dilute the penalties imposed on their friend, former environment secretary Owen Paterson, who had been found guilty of a flagrant violation of lobbying rules.
Within days, Johnson was forced into a reverse ferret over what he later admitted was a “total mistake”, as the uproar in response to such a blatant establishment eclipsed one of the most important diplomatic summits that the UK has ever organised. By an entirely unforced error, Johnson had angered his colleagues, pushed the biggest event he would organize off the front pages, and demonstrated that his strong majority of 80 was much more fragile than it appeared. A few days later, the first “partygate” story broke.
It is, by any measure, a stunning political death. And though many mainstream commentators won’t acknowledge it, climate action was quietly part and parcel of the story.
Last fall, Johnson’s dominance of British politics seemed beyond reproach. It had an 80-seat majority and while it may have handled the early waves of the coronavirus pandemic catastrophically badly – locking up late, sending elderly covid patients back to care homes, opening pubs before schools – an understanding public facing unprecedented traumatic events had given him the benefit of the doubt. He may not have ‘done Brexit’, but the perception was that he had moved on from years of political wrangling with Brussels. He may never have been as popular as his allies claimed, but two years after a landslide election victory he enjoyed a healthy lead in the polls of a still anemic Labor Party.
It was a position of authority that allowed him to embark on two historic economic projects that had the potential to reshape the UK: the “levelling” of historic regional inequalities and the transition to an entirely net zero emissions economy. in three decades. In the wake of Brexit, Johnson had diagnosed the two major interrelated economic challenges and opportunities facing a country that had been stagnating on multiple fronts for more than a decade. Brexit itself may have made carrying out these epic economic missions even more difficult, but the so-called “Brexity Hezza” had the unique ability of “Nixon to China” to bring together a diverse constituency to support a genuine green industrial revolution.
Critics and supporters may have accused him of lacking a big vision, but that was because they weren’t looking hard enough and Johnson failed to make it obvious enough. The total decarbonization of the economy in less than 30 years was a truly historic global economic project for anyone who wanted to be “king of the world”.
And then, through a litany of dishonesty, laziness and misjudgment, through endless lies, lockdown-breaking parties and utter disregard for colleagues and the public, through by-election losses , meetings with former KGB spies and a fundamental lack of seriousness, Johnson threw it all away.
And yet, in his not quite a resignation speech this afternoon, the Prime Minister made no mention of COP26, net zero or the climate crisis. It was a stunning omission.
Johnson’s waning group of allies like to repeat the line he said on Brexit and got the right calls, but it’s disputed at best, simply untrue at worst. Key technicalities of Brexit remain unresolved and the economic damage to the UK following its split from the EU is becoming more evident quarter on quarter. The rollout of the vaccine in the UK may have been a notable success, but the potential independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic is likely to be damning. The health and education systems were already in a painfully fragile state after a decade of economic austerity that Johnson rarely challenged. Johnson’s support for Ukraine has been admirable, but it’s hard to imagine any British government (barring a hypothetical Corbyn administration) not taking such a robust stance toward Putin.
In contrast, the vocal support for climate action that Johnson embraced in Glasgow has delivered real progress that is shaping the legacy.
The Prime Minister has adopted ambitious new medium-term targets to cut emissions by 78% by 2035, deliver near-zero emissions electricity by the same date and end the sale of petrol and diesel cars from by 2030. The COP26 team may well have deliberately kept such an unruly and evasive Number 10 operation at bay from delicate negotiations, but the government has finally delivered a Glasgow climate pact that should help push forward a new wave of climate change. global climate action. Meanwhile, Johnson has accelerated the development of offshore wind – as evidenced by today’s record clean energy auctions – laid the groundwork for new CCS, hydrogen and nuclear projects, earmarked significant funding for innovation in nature and cleantech, blocked fracking, and began the long overdue process of agricultural subsidy reform.
More broadly, he outlined a centre-right, techno-optimistic vision for decarbonizing a modern economy. In the many rows with Chancellor Rishi Sunak that ultimately played a key role in triggering the resignation that sparked the ministerial exodus, it was the Prime Minister who advocated for increased investment in green infrastructure and the economic recovery the country needs.
It’s bizarre that Johnson and the many ministers who have humbled themselves by defending the indefensible aspects of his administration have been unwilling to do more of this toll, even if it is offset by the outrageous failure to do more. Too often Johnson has triangulated to appease his chancellor, former media employers or climate-skeptical backbench MPs, or has simply been distracted by the constant chaos of his administration and failed to deliver on his many promises. At one point, Johnson promised a “Rooseveltian” green stimulus package, then seemingly forgot he ever said it. It became just another lie to add to the count. The chaotic failure of the Green Homes Grant program was followed by the shameful failure of any meaningful action on energy efficiency. Scandals, covid and Brexit have consumed so much bandwidth that policies to enable the development of crucial low-carbon infrastructure only emerged this week, just in time to see the government crumble around of them. Johnson has rarely, if ever, used his platform to properly explain to the public what the net zero transition means and why it is so important, allowing a backlash to develop that could yet drag a climate-skeptic into power.
This is where the explanation for Johnson’s unusual reluctance to flesh out his climate policies can be found. A man famous for telling his audience what they want to hear, has never had the courage to confront those allies and friends in the media who view the idea of climate action with suspicion. As such, it singularly failed to have the truly transformative impact it aspired to. He pushed the transition from net zero forward, when Johnsonian rocket boosters were needed.
It is fitting that Johnson’s downfall coincided with the Climate Change Committee’s damning assessment of the lack of progress towards UK climate targets over the past year and the equally critical assessment of the ‘Environmental Protection Office on the government’s nature strategy. It turns out that slogans without policies do not work. That a government filled with ministerial light-weights and overwhelmed by weekly scandals struggles to implement a transformational economic agenda. Who knew?
In the wake of that failure, the UK now faces the Conservatives’ third leadership election in a decade, as the party embarks on a new round of bloodletting and ideological posturing. There is no obvious candidate with a reputation for prioritizing climate action. There are a host of leading Party figures who have quietly, or not so quietly, made it known that they envision a future of fracking and free market ideologies. Important green policies such as agricultural subsidy reforms, energy market reforms, the end of internal combustion engine cars and the rollout of heat pumps could all now be vulnerable to a Prime Minister who wants to securing support from climate-skeptic MPs and media.
Fortunately, the green economy is now in a strong enough position to continue to grow no matter who ends up in Downing Street. It remains highly unlikely that a new Prime Minister will seek to tear down the entire UK climate policy framework, not least because Labor is ahead in the polls and the lesson from Australia is that governments that don’t take the climate crisis seriously lose votes because a result. It is possible that a politically savvy and more capable administration will take many of Johnson’s green policy underpinnings and build on them. But similarly, companies and investors already grappling with spiraling inflation, industrial action and a decade of stagnant productivity now face a new round of political turmoil, as well as the need to advocate again for a greener, healthier economy and more. resilient economy for all.
In the end, Johnson squandered the chance to reshape the Conservative Party and the wider economy to truly catalyze the next phase of the net zero transition and go down in history as the man who helped spark the revolution. 21st century green industry. Like so many classic characters, he has no other culprit than himself.