How conservative was Boris Johnson’s leadership?

The Conservative Party is heading into another leadership election, with the resignation of Boris Johnson in July 2022. After three years, Johnson’s premiership has been brought down by scandals, and a lack of trust among his ministers.

Despite winning a huge majority at the 2019 general election, the race to find the next Conservative Party leader is on, with either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak taking over from their former boss. Looking back at the last three years of Boris Johnson’s premiership, is it accurate or inaccurate to say that his policies reflected conservative values and principles?

Human nature

The general conservative consensus is that humans are flawed in their nature, and there should be increased spending on law and order to help protect against this. Johnson’s policies seem to generally align with this view, with police spending hitting its highest in a decade in 2021. Furthermore, during the coronavirus lockdowns, thousands of fines were issued to people gathering indoors or outdoors when this was not allowed.

However, this thinking surrounding human nature may be best exemplified by Boris Johnson’s actions. He was issued a fixed penalty notice of £50 in 2022 after a police investigation found he had breached his own coronavirus restrictions.

Furthermore, when one of his Conservative MPs, Owen Patterson, was found to have been taking money to lobby on behalf of an organisation, which is forbidden, Johnson tried to change the rules to allow Patterson to remain in post. He also changed the ministerial code to allow ‘small breaches’ of the rules without needing to resign, something that he relied on during the ‘partygate’ scandal.

The state

Conservatives tend to want a smaller state, with different types of conservatives wanting different roles for the state. The new right want as small a state as possible, while one-nation conservatives would prefer a state that has a paternalistic role in caring for the poorest in society.

Johnson’s government seems to align more with the one-nation view of an expanded state. In May 2021, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced that the railways would be privatised over the coming years to “mark the end of a quarter century of fragmentation.”


Conservative thinkers are generally split on the question of society. Traditional conservatives view society as a living organism, with Edmund Burke describing it as an ‘organic society’. However, new-right conservatives would see atomism as an important principle, modelling society as a collection of individuals pursuing their aims.

Under the lockdown provisions, and the push to get everyone vaccinated against coronavirus, the general consensus was that people were part of a greater society, and had a duty to care for their friends and families. This reflects a more traditional or one-nation conservative way of thinking.

The economy

The management of the economy under Johnson was overcast by the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. During this time, many businesses closed and people were forced to work from home. However, the government wanted to avoid widespread unemployment, and so created the ‘furlough’ scheme. Under this scheme, 80% of workers’ wages would be paid by the government rather than the businesses that were forced to close. This scheme costed the tax-payer a huge £70bn.

The subsequent cost-of-living crisis was also an important policy area. The rate of inflation jumped to 9.4% in July 2022, and the cost of fuel and everyday goods rose sharply. Many families struggled to afford the gas to cook food they had, and so the government had to intervene to smooth the crisis.

They implemented a ‘windfall tax’ on oil and gas producers, which would fund a £15bn energy price reduction. They also announced £650 for those on benefits to help cope with the cost-of-living crisis.

A highlighting conservative principle is low taxation, allowing people to spend more of what they earn. Under Johnson’s leadership, corporation tax rose from 19% to 25%, and a 1.25% increase in national insurance to help pay for the NHS and social care. This was criticised by many as it would put a higher burden on the poorest families.

So, how conservative was Johnson’s leadership?

Overall, Boris Johnson’s policies more accurately reflect a ‘one-nation’ approach to governance, with an increased welfare state particularly during the lockdowns and the cost-of-living crisis.

However, it is important to note the difference between the policies that were outlined in the 2019 general election manifesto and those that materialised. Johnson promised not to increase national insurance contributions, but did so in September 2021. This demonstrates the challenges that the unprecedented crises brought to governing the UK in the past three years.

You can learn more about conservatism, the different principles of conservatism and the key conservative thinkers as part of our Core Political Ideas course.

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How Conservative Was Boris Johnson

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