Boris Johnson’s legacy put on trial in Debating Society
Ewan Edwards and Joseph Vinton discuss the debate on Johnson’s legacy where parties in Number 10, Brexit, and the Pincher Scandal are all participants in weighing the balance.
Last Friday saw the Debating Society’s first titanic clash of the new term in which Boris Johnson’s historical reputation hung in the balance before a packed house at Amory Moot. Suffice it to say, it was indeed a quarrelsome evening with a clear victor for the Exeter audience peppered with an assortment of amusing moments. The debate had two sets of strong debaters: for the proposition, Julian Brazil (LibDem Leader on the Devon County Council and Paul Millar (Labour Councillor for Exmouth Halsdon) and for the opposition, Ann Widdecombe (Former Conservative MP and Brexit Party MEP) and Julian Gallie (Deputy Chairman of the Exeter University Conservative Association). It is worth noting, Julian Gallie was a last-minute replacement for Selaine Saxby (MP for North Devon) and did a stellar job at banging the Boris bongo donning his ‘Back Boris’ t-shirt.
The proposition started the debate by highlighting the lowlights of Boris’ premiership and attempted to dissect the framing of the question: “Was Boris Johnson the worst Prime Minister since the Second World War?” After punching into Paul Millar’s opening statement by shouting “Blair,” when he alluded to the winner of worst PM, Ann Widdecombe launched a lambasting at the proposition citing the “unsaleable competition” for worst PM. She let it be known from the outset that she was not here to play around and decided to focus on a historical comparison of former Prime Ministers. Citing the incompetence of Sir Anthony Eden’s handling of the Suez Crisis in the 1950s and James Callaghan’s leadership in the run-up to the Thatcher years, a broad historical perspective infused the strongest arguments of the opposition’s defence.
Sparks flew as the defence was put to task on Boris’ track record regarding partying in number 10, COVID, Brexit and the Pincher scandal.
Spectators subsequently witnessed a dynamic cross-examination. Sparks flew as the defence was put to task on Boris’ track record regarding partying in number 10, COVID, Brexit and the Pincher scandal. Ann Widdecombe appeared to concur that many mistakes had been made during the Boris years, nevertheless, her sight was focused on the “ungovernability of the parliamentary Conservative Party”. Her belief was that many 20th-century PMs had far worse performances in the office than Boris and that the real reason for the shaky premiership was because Boris was a “serial muddler”. Both sides of the debate were equally affectionate of the former Prime Minister as they colloquially referred to him as Boris. It seems such a small matter of wording, but it could be that this hindered the proposition as they tried to tarnish Johnson’s legacy as it sounded like they could be referring to a personal friend. One of the more intriguing moments in the cross-examination was the posing of the question by the proposition that if Theresa May was a worse Prime Minister than Boris Johnson, as Ann Widdecombe had alluded to, how did she soldier on despite not having an 80 seat majority. This was batted off by the opposition citing how the 80-seat majority meant the tories could risk a leader change without toppling the government and sweeping Mr Corbyn into Downing Street. When asked if the opposition had any questions for the proposition during the cross-examination, Ann Widdecombe in her characteristically blunt manner said she had not heard anything she wished to question. Which brought a swift end to the cross-examination.
When it came for the audience to ultimately decide on the victor of the debate it became obvious that the crowd were in favour of the arguments put forth by the opposition. A case can be made that not enough time has elapsed since Boris’ tenure in Number 10 for us to accurately weigh up the impact of his legacy. Questions ranged from whether good intentions outweighed the negative outcomes of Johnson’s premiership to what was worse between waging war against others or your own constitution and laws. The most poignant closing remark was that of Ann Widdecombe who stated that “all PMs get things wrong [but one] cannot prove Boris was the worst”. For these reasons, coupled with the sheer formidability of the opposition, it meant that the proposition was always going to face a strong challenge. This melding of factors leads to a highly engaging first-term debate and is a testament to the Debating Society’s committee for arranging the event. Credit also has to be given to Jack Barwell’s stewarding of the debate which was handled with humour and respect for both sides of the chair. It can’t be easy when Ann Widdecombe grabs your gavel and tries to tell you who is boss.