For most prime ministers, the sure knowledge that their premiership is coming to an end triggers a frantic last-ditch effort to complete as much of their policy agenda as possible and secure a legacy. But Boris Johnson’s decision to spend his final months thanking supporters at Chequers, hold a wedding party and taking a holiday weeks before his time in Downing St expires is an “enigmatic end to an enigmatic premiership”, according to one of the country’s best-known contemporary historians.
Sir Anthony Seldon, who has written books about BlairBrown, Cameron and Able to prime ministerial posts and studied the impossible job that prime ministers face, said Johnson’s approach contrasted sharply with that of his predecessors, who had the luxury of planning their final weeks.
He said that Tony Blair and Theresa May – two recent prime ministers who knew their time in office was coming to an end – both toiled hard to ensure their final weeks were not wasted. David Cameron also planned some final measures, only for his premiership to end prematurely after Andrea Leadsom pulled out of the Tory leadership race and May was crowned prime minister.
In contrast, Seldon said, Johnson’s last few weeks have been “unpleasant” since he announced his retirement. “What happens is prime ministers are either blown away by a general election, like John Major or Gordon Brown, or by a collapsing leadership election, as was the case with Cameron,” Seldon said. “He wanted to do all sorts of things with his last six weeks.
“But when they have the time, like Theresa May, they use it to really do all the things that they would have done early on if they’d had a better sense of the rhythm of the architecture of a premiership. Blair also planned his departure very meticulously and continued until the end.He choreographed his exit and how to maximize the final weeks.
“While it’s all flawed. It’s strange because the story of the Johnson Premiership is one of incomplete work. The things he cared about – leveling up, getting the Brexit dividend, creating the strong economy, creating a strong position for Britain in the world, be the most decisive prime minister on the environment – these things are not complete.
“A lot of the others had a whole series of speeches they were making to wrap things up the way they wanted to wrap them up. Maybe it will come, but the timing is acute for him because the country is going to be on vacation until the beginning of September, and so the interest does not come to him.”
Johnson was accused of being “missing in action” last week after it emerged he went on holiday to an undisclosed location just weeks before his premiership ends. Last month he held a drinks gathering at his Checkers country retreat during the heatwave as minister Kit Malthouse oversaw Cobra meetings about the extreme weather.
He held his wedding party the following weekend at Cotswolds estate of major Tory donor Lord Bamford. It is said to have included a steel band, rum punch, Abba songs and a conga. He had previously been photographed flying in a typhoon and training with Ukrainian troops. Johnson went on vacation on Wednesday.
Seldon said that unlike his predecessors who found themselves in a similar situation, Johnson has made No.10 a “hive of inactivity”. “That would be rational behavior for someone who had done the jobs he wanted to do,” he said. “He didn’t do those things. That would be rational behavior for an extremely diligent person who had come in all guns blazing. He didn’t.
“He is ending faith in himself. Everything about him is contrary to expectation.”
A No 10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has always been clear that this Government should be judged on its actions delivering for the British people – from taking back control and leaving the EU, protecting lives and livelihoods during the pandemic and rolling out our world – leading vaccination programme, to lead the global response to the conflict in Ukraine.
“While he has indicated his intention to step down once a new leader is in place, the Prime Minister remains focused on driving forward his commitments to the public. Not least ensuring families can access the £37bn of support for households , which faces rising costs as a result of Putin’s illegal war.”