Boris Johnson's premiership has ended in failure, the opportunity to shape a new era of climate action squandered by a fundamental lack of seriousness
As a student of the classics Boris Johnson may one day manage a wry smile at the way the acme of his premiership came in the same week as he sowed the seeds that would ultimately lead to today's political nadir. Although then again, judging by the bitter and graceless nature of today's resignation speech, such self-reflection will probably remain beyond him.
It was on the evening of November 2nd, that hubris met nemesis. Fresh from a successful two days at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow during which he warned that "humanity has long since run down the clock on climate change", joked that he may still be in Downing Street in 2060, and called on his fellow world leaders to make this "the moment when we began irrefutably to turn the tide and to begin the fightback against climate change", Boris Johnson took a private jet back to London so he could attend a party of former colleagues from the Daily Telegraph.
There, his former editor, Lord Charles Moore, is said to have convinced Johnson to try and change parliamentary rules to dilute the sanctions imposed upon their friend, former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who had been found guilty of an egregious breach 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 stitch up overshadowed one of the most important diplomatic summits the UK had ever hosted. Through an entirely unforced error Johnson had angered colleagues, pushed the biggest event he would host off the front pages, and demonstrated that his 80 strong majority was far more brittle than it seemed. Just a few days later, the first 'partygate' story would break.
It is, by any measure, a staggering political demise. And while many mainstream commentators fail to recognise it, climate action was a quietly integral part of the story.
Last autumn, Johnson's dominance of British politics seemed unimpeachable. He had an 80 seat majority and while he may have catastrophically mismanaged the initial waves of the coronavirus pandemic - locking down late, discharging elderly patients with covid into care homes, opening the pubs before the schools - an understanding public faced with traumatically unprecedented events had given him the benefit of the doubt. He may not have 'got Brexit done', but the perception was that he had drawn a line under years of political wrangling with Brussels. He may never have been as popular as his allies claimed, but two years on from an overwhelming election victory he enjoyed a healthy poll lead from a still anaemic looking Labour Party.
It was a position of authority that allowed him to embark upon two historic economic projects that had the potential to reshape the UK: the 'levelling up' of historic regional inequalities and the transition to a fully net zero emission economy inside three decades. In the wake of Brexit, Johnson had diagnosed the two big interlinked economic challenges and opportunities faced by a country that had been flat-lining on multiple fronts for over a decade. Brexit itself may have made delivering on these epic economic missions harder still, but the self-styled 'Brexity Hezza' had the unique 'Nixon to China' ability to pull together a diverse constituency in support of a genuine green industrial revolution.
Critics and supporters alike may have accused him of lacking a big vision, but that was because they were not looking hard enough and Johnson failed to make it obvious enough. The full decarbonisation of the economy in less than 30 years was a genuinely world-historic economic project for the man who wanted to be 'world king'.
And then, through a litany of dishonesty, laziness, and misjudgements, through endless lies, lockdown-breaking parties, and an utter disregard for both colleagues and the public, through by-election losses, meetings with ex-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 dwindling band of allies like to parrot the line that he delivered Brexit and got the big calls right, but this is contested at best, simply false at worse. The key technicalities of Brexit remain unresolved and the economic damage done to the UK as a result of its schism from the EU becomes more obvious by the quarter. The UK's vaccine roll out may have proven a notable success, but the eventual independent inquiry on the government's handling of the pandemic is likely to be damning. The health and education systems were already in a distressingly fragile state following a decade of austerity economics that Johnson rarely challenged. Johnson's support for Ukraine has been admirable, but it is hard to envisage any British government (with the exception of a hypothetical Corbyn administration) failing to adopt a similarly robust stance towards Putin.
In contrast, the vocal support for climate action that Johnson espoused in Glasgow did help deliver some genuine, legacy-shaping progress.
The Prime Minister adopted ambitious new medium term targets to slash emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, deliver a near zero emission power system by the same date, and end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. The COP26 team may well have deliberately kept such an ill-disciplined and leaky Number 10 operation at arm's length from the delicate negotiations, but the government did ultimately deliver a Glasgow Climate Pact that should help advance a new wave of global climate action. Meanwhile, Johnson fast tracked offshore wind development - as evidenced by today's record-breaking clean energy auctions - laid the foundations for new CCS, hydrogen, and nuclear projects, earmarked significant funding for nature and clean tech innovation, blocked fracking, and began the long overdue process of reforming farming subsidies.
More broadly, he sketched out a centre-right, techno-optimist vision for decarbonising a modern economy. In the many arguments with Chancellor Rishi Sunak that ultimately played a key role in triggering the resignation that sparked the Ministerial exodus, it was the Prime Minister arguing for the increased green infrastructure investment and economic stimulus the country needs.
It is bizarre that Johnson and the many Ministers that have demeaned themselves defending the indefensible aspects of his administration have not wanted to make more of this track record, even if it is offset by the scandalous failure to do more. Too often, Johnson triangulated to appease his Chancellor, his former media employers, or his climate sceptic backbenchers, or simply got 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, and then seemingly forgot he'd ever said it. It became just another untruth to add to the tally. The shambolic failure of the Green Homes Grant scheme was followed by the shameful failure to deliver any meaningful action on energy efficiency. Scandals, covid, and Brexit ate up so much bandwidth that policies to enable crucial low carbon infrastructure development only emerged this week, just in time to watch the government collapse around them. Johnson rarely, if ever, used his platform to properly explain to the public what the net zero transition meant and why it was so important, allowing a backlash to build that could yet sweep a climate sceptic into office.
It is here that the explanation for Johnson's uncharacteristic reluctance to big up his climate policies can be found. A man famed for telling his audience what they want to hear, never once had the nerve to take on those allies and friends in the media who regard the idea of climate action with suspicion. As such, he singularly failed to have the genuinely transformative impact to which he aspired. He nudged the net zero transition forward, when what was needed were some Johnsonian rocket-boosters.
It is fitting that Johnson's downfall coincided with the Climate Change Committee's damning assessment on the lack of progress towards the UK's climate goals over the past year and the Office of Environmental Protection's similarly critical assessment of the government's nature strategy. It turns out that slogans without policies fail to deliver results. That a government filled with Ministerial lightweights and overwhelmed by weekly scandals struggles to deliver a transformational economic programme. Who knew?
As a result of this failure, the UK now faces the third Tory leadership election inside a decade, as the Party engages in yet another round of blood-letting and ideological posturing. There is no obvious candidate with a reputation for prioritising climate action. There are a host of leading figures in the Party who have quietly, or not so quietly, let it be known they fancy a future of fracking and free market ideologies. Important green policies such as farming subsidy reforms, energy market reforms, the end of internal combustion engine cars, and the heat pump roll out could all now be vulnerable to a Prime Minister who wants to secure the support of climate sceptic MPs and media outlets.
Thankfully, the green economy is now in a strong enough position that it will continue to advance regardless of who ends up in Downing Street. It remains highly unlikely that a new Prime Minister would seek to demolish the entirety of the UK's climate policy framework, not least because Labour is leading in the polls and the lesson from Australia is that governments that fail to take the climate crisis seriously lose votes as a result. It is possible that a politically savvy and more competent administration would take many of Johnson's green policy foundations and build on them. But equally, businesses and investors already wrestling with spiralling inflation, industrial action, and a decade of flat-lining productivity now face yet another round of political turmoil, as well as the requirement to again make the case for a greener, healthier, and more resilient economy for all.
Ultimately, Johnson squandered the chance to remould the Conservative Party and the wider economy to truly catalyse the next phase of the net zero transition and go down in history as the man who helped trigger the 21st century's green industrial revolution. Like so many classical figures, he has no one to blame but himself.