Picture credit: Stefan Rousseau-WPA Pool/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Blame Boris for Britain’s borders

Boris Johnson is no lost Conservative hero — he did tremendous harm

Following the recent disastrous set of election results for the Conservative party, a familiar question returned: “What if Boris had stayed as Prime Minister?” Last weekend, former Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi bemoaned the loss of Johnson, telling The Sunday Times that, other than Thatcher, he couldn’t “think of a more consequential prime minister of his generation.”

Rishi Sunak’s announcement of the forthcoming election had some dreaming in blonde colours. “It’s time to activate Boris,” claimed the commentator Lee Harris. “If we’re realistic, there’s only one good option,” announced Spencer Morgan (son of Piers) above a photo of the former PM.

What’s strange about the nostalgia surrounding Johnson (I refuse to call him “BoJo” which entrenches the idea of his harmlessness) is that it generally appears to come from social conservatives; the people behind the “Red Wall” phenomenon, who lean leftish economically but like soundbites such as “Get Brexit Done”. Forgive me for my own version of “they didn’t know what they were voting for”, but I can’t help thinking many of these voters don’t realise the half of what Johnson has done to Britain. “Consequential” is one word for it.

As we all know, part of why Johnson has always commanded a following is his charm — the bumbling Britishiness very much part of the appeal. Speeches, delivered in the tone of Hugh Grant meeting an American woman in a Richard Curtis film, and schoolboy silliness — think Johnson knocking over the boy in a Japanese rugby match (2015) and getting stuck in a zip wire carrying Union Jack flags at the 2012 London Olympics — give the sense of an eccentric Englishman. One of Johnson’s Daily Mail columns, titled: “Would I sign up to fight for King and country? Yes, Sah!”, typifies the bombastic Churchillianism he so often engages in.

But Johnson is far from this character; in fact, he is about as radical as a Gender Studies graduate at the University of Brighton — at least, when it comes to immigration. His ideals, in turn becoming policies, are a large part of the reason Britain is in such a mess.

The first sign of Johnson’s ultra-progressive attitude to immigration was when he was Mayor of London and called for an earned amnesty for an estimated 400,000 people living illegally in the capital — though he lacked the authority to enforce this.

Years later, while Foreign Secretary for then-Prime Minister Theresa May, Johnson pushed for a similar amnesty — this time for legal and illegal migrants who’d been living in the country for over a decade, so long as they were “squeaky clean” and had no criminal records. Estimates suggested that this move would have resulted in 500,000 to 700,000 migrants being allowed to stay permanently in the UK, but May shut down the idea.

Shortly afterwards Johnson, of course, became Prime Minister and finally got the chance to go full Guardianista on Britain’s already-dysfunctional immigration system. He reversed a policy May set in 2012, while Home Secretary, meaning that overseas students would have to leave four months after finishing degrees in Britain. Under Johnson they would now be able to remain for two years — and three for PhDs and other doctoral qualifications.

It’s hard to remember now – in a year when Rishi Sunak has been trying and failing to reverse the graduate visa policy — how jubilant high-profile MPs were about the change of direction. Chancellor Sajid Javid tweeted that the government “should have reversed this silly policy years ago”. Silly us! And yet, look what happened next… The number of dependents arriving with international students in the UK rose from just under 15,000 (the year ending September 2019) to over 150,000 (the equivalent for 2023), an increase of more than 930 percent.

Looking back, it’s clear that Johnson’s relaxation of rules was a disaster for Britain, especially against the backdrop of a housing crisis and other infrastructure crumbling under ever-increasing demand. 

But “the more the merrier” seems to be Johnson’s philosophy. Take the Australian point-style system of immigration. Ostensibly a neat fix to Britain’s astronomical levels of immigration — designed to attract only the brightest and best — it led to record levels of arrivals. Its selection process appears to be as relaxed as the Prime Minister who introduced it. 

Johnson’s catastrophic legacy on immigration has gone relatively undetected

Johnson, to be fair to him, did push (unsuccessfully) for major housing reforms, which would have gone some way to supporting increases in the population. Even so, it would be near impossible to build for the rapid numbers of people arriving in the UK. These include those in dire straits (think Afghan, Ukrainian and Hong Kong refugees). So grave is our housing situation that there were incidences of Ukrainians returning to the war zone they’d fled from. Shockingly, almost 300,000 of them had to apply for homelessness support in 2022-2023.

Johnson’s catastrophic legacy on immigration has gone relatively undetected, largely thanks to a media class that is more bothered about tupperware investigations. They have missed a trick in not pointing out things that would ensure the electorate universally despises him, from Red Wall voters to those still fuming about Brexit.

Instead, Johnson has had his happily ever after, making £2.3 million in the past 12 months, on top of his salary as an MP, according to recent-released. He lives in the countryside, where his main occupation now appears to be boosting British birth records. Pity that others aren’t doing the same — no thanks to his decisions to invite the whole world to live in the UK. “Who will sign up to fight for King and country?” No one at this rate.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover