The Tory election victory transformed Boris Johnson from a prime minister who could barely win a vote in Parliament to one who can, for now, do as he pleases. It is a grotesque prospect. Johnson is a serial liar, a product of the ruling class who, until the morning of 13 December, lacked the respect of many in it.
As recently as October, David Cameron compared Johnson to a “greased piglet that manages to slip through people’s hands”.
Yet the meaning of Johnson’s victory for his class was clear. “Hedge funds enjoyed a bumper payday”, the Financial Times reported.
Johnson took a chance and squeezed maximum advantage from it. Now he has the majority that predecessor Theresa May sought in 2017, what will he do?
We have little to go on from his first months as prime minister as these were dominated by manoeuvring over Brexit while he led a minority government.
Before the election, Johnson declared “the end of austerity”. We can dismiss this since the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a government-appointed watchdog, pointed out: “Conservative plans, if delivered, would leave public spending outside of health still 14% lower in 2023-24 than in 2010-11.”
The Tory manifesto added few clear pointers. It promised £34 billion for the NHS, 50,000 more nurses, an increase in the national insurance threshold and 20,000 additional police.
Johnson will no doubt aim to deliver on these, if only because, as an ally put it: “It needs to be impossible for Labour to base the next [election] campaign on the NHS.” Of course, flinging additional money at the NHS will mean little if it simply swells the profits of private providers.
And one of the few moments Johnson’s mask slipped during the election campaign was when he was confronted by the photo on a reporter’s phone of a four-year-old boy sleeping on a hospital floor. Johnson simply refused to respond, pocketed the phone and disappeared — suggesting the NHS may be in the hands of Alan Partridge.
We know Johnson’s government will be hard on immigration. Home secretary Priti Patel, formerly an advocate of hanging, has already promised a points-based immigration system which discriminates against the low-paid. And Johnson has shown his willingness to encourage racism in office, pledging a crackdown on immigrants who “treat the UK as though it’s part of their own country”.
His victory speech in Downing Street when he declared “Let the healing begin” attempted to cast him as a “one nation Tory”. It led a former speech writer for Tony Blair, Philip Collins, to describe it as “so reminiscent of boilerplate Blair speeches that I began to wonder if I’d written it”.
We got a rather more accurate idea of Johnson’s politics during the Tory leadership election campaign when he initially pledged to cut income tax for those earning more than £50,000.
Johnson doesn’t appear to have anything up his sleeve compared with the Ridley Plan — the secret strategy of the incoming Thatcher government in 1979 to take on the trade unions — at least so far as we are aware.
He likes gestures. His declaration of “a people’s government” was one such. His ban on ministers attending the World Economic Forum in Davos in January was another. The Financial Times reported a “senior Tory figure” suggesting: “Our focus is on delivering for the people, not champagne with billionaires.”
Johnson’s time as London mayor offers pointers to how this works. “Boris bikes”, new Routemaster buses and the London Olympics were among the legacies of his eight years in office. The bikes were paid for privately, the buses are no longer manufactured (the Northern Ireland firm making them went into administration) and the Olympics was an event Johnson stage-crashed having had no responsibility for bringing it to London.
The underlying reality of Johnson’s London was made brutally plain by the Grenfell fire disaster in 2017, a year after Johnson stood down, following cuts to the fire service during his time in office.
His immediate move to legislate to prevent his government seeking an extension of the Brexit transition period beyond December 2020 is revealing. At bottom it was another gesture, but one with clear intent.
The Tories had already made clear they would not seek an extension, but this did not stop widespread speculation that, with an 80-seat majority, Johnson would turn his back on Tory Eurosceptics and seek both an extension and a softer break with the EU, more in line with the majority business view.
Enshrining the transition end date in law signalled to the EU that he would do neither. It’s a negotiating ploy that worked for him last autumn but now risks a new ‘cliff edge’ in negotiations and a potential no-deal Brexit towards the end of 2020.
The contradictions in Johnson’s position remain. He wants freedom for Britain to undercut the EU on regulations while retaining free access to the EU market, and the EU won’t have it. Most business leaders see free access as the priority. Those around Johnson do not.
The regulatory relaxations he seeks will largely be at the expense of workers’ rights at work, ‘consumer’ protections, and access to the NHS for US health and drug giants.
However, Johnson took care in the election campaign to provide a smokescreen, talking only of diverging from EU regulations on state-aid rules.
Yet serious mainstream commentators were near unanimous in sounding notes of caution about his government. The Times columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris noted: “Johnson’s personal approval ratings are awful. He starts with a reputation for untrustworthiness most leaders take years to attract. The hostages to fortune he has created now wait. He will have to disappoint.”
Johnson “offers olive branches to people he will betray”, Parris added. “The assault on his competence and character is oven-ready.”
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