It’s easy to despise Boris Johnson. He’s an Etonian sleazebag with a history of racist remarks who is willing to say or do anything to win and retain power. It’s not true that he has no principles, but they are a version of Thatcherism.
Johnson is what the French call a sovereignist, who puts defending British national sovereignty before anything else. He’s also a free-marketeer. Witness his willingness a year ago to “let the bodies pile up” rather than damage the economy by imposing another lockdown.
For all this, it would be a mistake to underestimate Johnson. Currently he dominates British politics to an extent that no one has since Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
The fundamental reason for this is Johnson’s willingness to challenge establishment neoliberalism.
It was establishment neoliberalism that went down to defeat in the June 2016 Brexit referendum. Theresa May tried to keep Britain close to the European Union. Johnson brought her down, negotiated a much harder Brexit, and handsomely won the December 2019 general election.
“Get Brexit done” was a brilliant slogan. It was calculated to exploit public weariness with endless manoeuvring in parliament and present Johnson as the people’s champion against obstructive judges and MPs.
It appealed to the anger of Leave voters, some of them ex-Labour supporters, at Remainers’ attempts to nullify the referendum result.
Johnson’s victory might have been scuppered by his government’s callous bungling of the pandemic. What saved him was the successful vaccine rollout. In August he doubled down on this bet on the vaccines by scrapping social distancing.
The National Insurance surcharge represents a further attack by Johnson on establishment neoliberalism, this time in the Thatcherite hard core. The move will raise taxation to 35.5 percent of national income, the highest level since 1950.
Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation think-tank commented, “We’ve learnt that low-tax Conservatism is dead. This is the biggest set of tax rises since the 1970s if you take this together with the tax rises in the March budget.”
Johnson is an extremely effective political operator. Whether he can sustain his dominance is another matter
This has caused agony among Tory MPs and in the cabinet, where the Thatcherite commitment to low taxes is deep. The Telegraph newspaper was a joy to read last week.
One “normally loyal senior Tory MP” said, “This is the first skirmish in a long war. We have a Conservative government that is addicted to spending money.”’
Another MP confessed that, “on occasion in recent months, he had gone home to his partner and cried because of the decisions he had had to vote on, adding that he did not know what a Tory was any more.”
Yet Johnson got the tax hike through with barely a squeak of opposition from the Tory ranks. This was mainly because he presented it as saving the NHS—exactly the line he used to justify the lockdowns.
This wrong-footed not just the Tory low taxers, but also Labour, which has always prided itself as the party of the NHS.
All this shows that Johnson is an extremely effective political operator. Whether he can sustain his dominance is another matter. First, Covid-19 may have some more nasty surprises up its sleeve.
Secondly, Johnson doesn’t have an alternative to establishment neoliberalism.
In an interview for a new book, he says, “The Treasury has made a catastrophic mistake in the last 40 years in thinking that you can just hope that the whole of the UK is somehow going to benefit from London and the southeast.”
He was in effect attacking the priority both Thatcher and Blair gave to finance and the City. But there’s no sign Johnson has a real strategy for a British economy pummelled by Brexit and the pandemic.
The National Insurance surcharge is highly regressive, hitting low-paid workers concentrated in the northern “red seats” the Tories won from Labour in 2019.
Tory support dropped five percentage points in the latest YouGov poll.
This is short-term stuff, but we shouldn’t forget that both Thatcher and Blair were eventually driven from office.