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'This is it, folks': Boris Johnson bids an ambiguous goodbye

Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives with his wife Carrie to speak outside Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. [AP Photo]

Boris Johnson’s term as British leader was a mix of high drama and low disgrace. But he left office on Tuesday with a casual shrug of a farewell: “Well, this is it, folks.”

The prime minister’s final speech outside 10 Downing Street, delivered before he offered his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II, was vintage Johnson — a quixotic blend of humor, classical erudition, ego and an elastic relationship with the truth. And it left many observers wondering whether this really is the end for a leader who has long defied political gravity.

“It was a classic Boris speech,” said Hannah White, acting director of the Institute for Government think-tank. “It was very much focused on him and his achievements. But I think that it is quite clear that he’s licking his wounds. He understands that if he steps away at this moment, he is going to continue to be an influential figure. And I think he will be biding his time.”

For Johnson fans, the speech was a moment to regret the departure of Britain’s most entertaining modern prime minister — and perhaps to nurture a flame for his return. For critics, it was a reminder of why his administration collapsed in scandal before it could fulfil Johnson’s lofty policy aims.

Not that you would have known that from Johnson’s words. He claimed big successes for his government, including leading Britain out of the European Union, overseeing Europe’s fastest COVID-19 vaccine rollout and sending weapons to Ukraine to help it resist Russia’s invasion.

Some of those achievements are debatable at best. Johnson says he “got Brexit done,” but the consequences of Britain’s messy, testy divorce from the European Union will roil both sides for decades. Britain did have a rapid vaccine rollout, but also one of Europe’s highest COVID-19 death tolls.

As in his debut speech as prime minister three years ago, Johnson painted a vision of the high-tech, high-energy Britain of his dreams, a powerhouse in wind power and in scientific research and development. As with so much in his career, it was part reality, part aspiration.

Some of the successes he claimed are still in preliminary stages, such as three new high-speed rail lines and “a new nuclear reactor every year.” Others, like reforming social care, remain thorny problems for his successor, Prime Minister Liz Truss.