Boris Johnson set to step down with tech legacy in tatters

Brexit and COVID era has seen a litany of failures and half-baked ideas

As UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to resign – but stay on in a caretaker role for three months – the momentous occasion offers the opportunity to reflect on his legacy of half-baked ideas and unfinished projects.

The last 24 hours in British politics can be neatly summed up by the reaction of The Economist, which marked Johnson's demise with the Twitter-trending headline Clownfall.

Following a multitude of calamitous moments, including Partygate - parties taking place at the Conservative PM's place of work during the pandemic, breaking rules the government put in place - and culminating in Johnson's appointment of an MP embroiled in a sex scandal, more than 50 ministers and government aides resigned yesterday. The PM simply had nowhere to hide.

Surprising no one who witnessed the politician back cable cars as a revolution in river crossing or a garden bridge as an innovation in inner-city expansion, the outgoing Prime Minister leaves behind a set of science and technology projects which are either yet to be completed or completely off the wall.

Dangling plans include his ambition to accelerate the arrival of productive nuclear fusion – a technical breakthrough which always promises to be 20 years off.

In 2019, Johnson praised the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxford, only for others to reveal the organization benefited from large chunks of funding from the European Union, the powerful political and economic bloc Johnson so passionately persuaded the UK to leave.

Fission is also a favorite. Johnson has been vocal in backing small modular reactors, a technology from jet engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce. A study has claimed some miniaturized fission units produce as much as 35 times more waste to generate the same amount of power as a regular plant.

The UK is also in the throes of an attempt to mimic the US's success with DARPA – the defense-led science unit which played a role in the development of the internet.

As of last year, Aria – the Advanced Research and Invention Agency – hadn't even begun to happen despite five years passing since the UK decided to leave the EU. Now reports suggest the launch of the agency will be delayed until at least the end of this year.

Meanwhile, UK scientists are being cut off from European funding, post-Brexit.

Of course, the government has in the meantime had to deal with a pandemic, one in which it firmly grasped the opportunity to show off a world-beating talent for technological ineptitude.

First, it developed a COVID-19 app which never really launched and was abandoned in preference for a model developed by Google and Apple. Then it budgeted – though did not fully spend, we note – £37 billion for a two-year Test and Trace regime that failed to achieve its stated ambition of avoiding a second national lockdown.

Worth noting is the fact the budget for Test and Trace is nearly 19 times more than the £2 billion promised to England NHS for its much-needed digital upgrade, another plan which is only getting off the ground just as Johnson departs.

Financial Times journalist Sebastian Payne has pointed out that government insiders say the Cabinet Office is "preparing for a scenario where there's not a full Cabinet" which would include "slimming the government right down" and "people doing a few jobs."

"Hard to see the country being run like that for three months," he said.

Debate still rages about what Johnson will do after his time in office, but for once the prospect of a moonshot seems especially apt. ®

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