Bye bye, Boris
Why Boris Johnson's departure is good news for Ukraine
It has finally happened: Boris Johnson — slowly, but at long last — is headed out the door.
I’m not an analyst of British politics, so I’ll leave the analysis of the hows, whys and wherefores of Boris’s departure to those who know their stuff, particularly Sam Freedman. But I’m increasingly hearing concern among those who focus on Russia, Ukraine and the war that the departure of a Prime Minister who has stood firm against Moscow and in support of Kyiv is a blow to the Western coalition.
That concern is misguided.
Credit where it’s due: under Johnson’s leadership, the UK has consistently been on the right side of this conflict, out front on both sanctions and military aid — at least rhetorically. But that credit is not due only to Johnson; indeed, there is broad cross-party support for Britain’s response to the war. Nor should this credit overshadow the fact that other aspects of Johnson’s reign have in important ways both undermined the coherence of the Western coalition and enabled and emboldened the Kremlin. As a result, Johnson’s resignation should actually strengthen the British and Western responses to Russia, in three key ways:
Increased policy seriousness: Johnson was a showman, not a statesman. His talent for seizing the moment is unsurpassed in British politics, but that cost of that talent is an overriding focus on the moment itself, at the expense of strategy. As a result, while Downing Street’s rhetoric has been in the right place from the beginning of the war (and even before), actual policy — especially on sanctions — has lagged behind. Johnson’s departure, then, opens the door for more competent governance, which will be better able to mobilize the considerable diplomatic, economic and military resources at Britain’s disposal.
Increased institutional resilience: Johnson did not create Britain’s kleptocracy problem, but he has profited from it politically perhaps more than any modern UK politician. To be clear, the problem afflicts the British establishment as a whole — and the Conservative Party more than any other — and so there is unlikely to be deep institutional reform until another party comes to power. But it is equally clear that Johnson himself has been a brake on even modest Tory efforts to limit the influence of illicit capital on British politics and policymaking, and on the functioning of its institutions more broadly. And that influence not only affects policy decisions — such as the strength of British sanctions policy and enforcement — but contributes to the Kremlin’s sense that it will eventually get what it wants out of London. Removing the ‘Boris brake’ is thus good both for British politics in general, and for Britain’s policies on Russia in particular.
Increased international coherence: Johnson’s weaponization of Brexit for domestic political purposes has alienated London’s European allies and frustrated the Biden administration’s efforts to shore up Euro-Atlantic solidarity. Brexit itself is a fait accompli, of course, the fact of which will be unaffected by Johnson’s departure. More than that, any new Prime Minister — and certainly any Tory PM — will still face powerful incentives to pursue a hard line on Northern Ireland and other thorny aspects of the trading relationship with Europe. Almost any new government, however, will be more consistent and predictable, which in and of itself will reduce friction, making other discussions — including discussions on Russia, Ukraine and the war — easier and more productive.
There is at least one other reason impact that Johnson’s unwilling resignation has on the West’s relationship with Russia: it demonstrates the continued salience of integrity. Now, I’m not naïve: the Tories forced Johnson out not because they’re overwhelmingly concerned with integrity in public life, but because they’re concerned about the impact that Johnson’s rampaging dishonesty might have on their own political careers. That still puts integrity at the heart of the matter, though, in a way that the Republican Party, for example, steadfastly refuses to do.
Maintaining the coalition against Putin and in support of Ukraine will require Western citizens to believe that their own political systems can work — and thus that democracy is still something worth fighting for. Johnson’s departure does not magically fix democracy, of course. Neither does it solve all of the challenges that plague the Western coalition. But Johnson’s survival in power would have been a mortal blow to both.