Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street following a cabinet meeting in September
Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street following a cabinet meeting in September © Andy Rain/EPA/EFE/Shutterstock

Historians will view Boris Johnson as one of the UK’s more significant politicians. In terms of his impact on his country, for good or ill, he may rank not far behind Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher among postwar politicians.

Mr Johnson’s most important legacy will be “getting Brexit done” and so the transformation of the country’s relationship with the EU. This would probably not have happened without him, even though Brexit party leader Nigel Farage and former prime minister David Cameron played big parts, too. He has also determined the nature of Brexit. Today, the only choice he has left the country is between an ultra-hard Brexit and “no trade deal”.

Mr Johnson insists that the UK would “prosper mightily” under the latter. He calls this trading under “Australian” terms, a fancier label for the rules of the World Trade Organization. But Australia sent a mere 3 per cent of its goods exports to the EU in 2019. It may want a trade deal with the EU, but can live without one. The UK’s position is utterly different: it sent 46 per cent of its exports to the EU. The market that matters to Australia is China, which took 38 per cent of its exports. Alas, Australia is learning how little protection the WTO can give against an angry superpower.

The UK government’s own estimates are that “no deal” on trade would lower UK gross domestic product by about 8 percentage points over 15 years relative to staying in the EU. That might amount to halving cumulative growth in GDP per head. The free trade agreement it seeks could cost 5 percentage points — still too much, but a little less.

The issues over which the government is fighting with the EU are absurd. One is fisheries. Yet “fishing and aquaculture” generate just 0.04 per cent of UK gross value added. Another is the “level playing field” in competition, to which the prime minister committed the country in the “political declaration” agreed with the EU last year. Mr Johnson now argues that the UK should be treated just like Canada, instead. But the EU’s imports of goods from the UK are 10 times those from Canada. Inevitably, the two are not viewed in the same way.

A huge issue now is the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland agreed last year, part of which the UK is now legislating to undo. Breaking his own word is worse than wrong; it is stupid. It puts a bright sign over Downing Street saying “do not trust me or my country”.

So why think of doing this? Maybe Mr Johnson wishes to blame the inevitable pains of Brexit on EU intransigence. This might be a domestic win, even though it would poison relations with the EU indefinitely.

The combination of an unpopular Brexit with the heavy-handed way in which it is being handled is strengthening the Scottish National party’s push for independence. So, the outcome of Mr Johnson’s ride on the tiger of English nationalism could be the end of the union of England and Scotland itself.

In addition, we have an assault on established institutions and principles. In the cross hairs of his populism have been parliamentary (as opposed to popular) sovereignty, business, the civil service, the judiciary, human rights lawyers, the BBC and Thatcherite free-market economics. In some of these areas there is genuine need for reform. But the expected conservative approach would be to consider change carefully and meticulously: after all, it is so much easier to make things worse than to make them better. But this is not the approach he has taken.

A vaccine may rescue the UK from the Covid-19 disaster. But the mess Mr Johnson has made in managing the pandemic is staggering: the endless changes of mind; the confused strategy; and the absurd boasting. Mr Johnson’s assertion, to take a notorious example, that the UK would have a “world-beating” test and trace system by June 1 is on a par with his assertion that it will “prosper mightily” without an EU trade deal. Neither has any grounding in reality. The testing and tracing system is still not working successfully. Shamefully, the UK has the highest total Covid mortality rate of all the high-income countries, after Belgium and Spain.

Mr Johnson is not a serious man. He is unlikely ever to govern competently. Even if the government’s mentality of “move fast and break things” ends with the exit of Dominic Cummings, that will not change. Mr Johnson has already broken big things that cannot be put back together again. This has made him a truly important politician, but a damaging one, alas.

martin.wolf@ft.com

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