Brexit has arrived. But Boris Johnson’s reign is just beginning
The moment has arrived. Britain is out of the European Union. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his “People’s Government” — it scarcely calls itself Conservative at this point — has fulfilled the promise on which it was elected in December and “got Brexit done.”
There are difficulties ahead. Johnson has promised impossible and contradictory things on Brexit: Maximum regulatory freedom where it suits his government, maximum frictionless trade where it suits the British economy. The European Union is unlikely to give him what he wants in the months of negotiations to come.
But by fulfilling his pledge, Johnson has won enormous good will from nationalist voters across England and Wales. Outside the European Union, he will also have more scope to change the British government’s role in the economy. This gives him a unique opportunity do what his predecessors could not: build a lasting popular base for the Conservative Party. Johnson can now take advantage of his big majority to overhaul British capitalism, incentivising long-term Conservative voters while permanently annexing chunks of the Labour Party’s historic base.
Already, the dimensions of Johnson’s plans are becoming clear. He has no intention of running the country as any Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher would have: He is not out to roll back the state. Instead, he is out to secure the support of working-class voters who handed over to the Tories dozens of seats formerly held by Labour. His premiership, set free by Brexit, could reshape Britain’s electoral map for decades.
During the election, Johnson campaigned as an almost single-issue nationalist, the phrase “get Brexit done” falling robotically from his lips between every other stammer. Beyond that, much of what he said was conventionally Tory: He promised harsher restrictions on immigration, meaning an end to free movement from the European Union and the expansion of the “hostile environment” for migrants.
Attack on liberal norms
Domestic repression, the manifesto promised, would also tighten, with a bigger penal system and a greater emphasis on “counter-extremism,” which, as Home Secretary Priti Patel has indicated, will target parts of the left. Johnson has also hinted at constitutional reforms, which would strengthen the executive and weaken judicial challenges. He promises an attack on liberal norms and legality in the name of national invigoration.
Tellingly, he distanced himself from the last government. He would end austerity, raise spending on the National Health Service, guarantee pensions, raise the minimum wage and borrow £100 billion to invest in infrastructure. Many of these promises were grossly exaggerated, but they served to underline the point that a Johnson administration would be different. And since the election, the government has acted to carry out its commitments, passing legislation to guarantee NHS spending increases and proposing moderate improvements to workers’ and renters’ rights. It has also promised that most of the infrastructure spending will be invested in England’s deprived northern regions — and this week backed up the promise by nationalising the north’s major rail service.
If this sounds like an incursion into Labour territory, it is. Many of the policies are directly taken from Labour’s plans. The push for a larger state resonates with a politically ambiguous popular memory of the postwar era — a certain nostalgia for the era of big, dynamic industries owned by the British government inflects both a version of the left-wing politics of the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and a version of Brexit sentiment. Johnson knows that many of the votes contributing to a Conservative majority were “lent” by voters who wanted Brexit done. A more interventionist state is a way to shore up a lasting, broad coalition.
This pragmatic raid on enemy turf was first conceived under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May. More thoughtful Tories knew they had to change. The British state and economy had become dysfunctional: gaping regional inequalities, a housing market inaccessible to younger workers, weak labour productivity, sluggish investment and very little to export. May’s advisers understood that the Conservatives had to break with the formula of austerity and financialisation somehow.
But while she used the rhetoric of working-class uplift, she was unable to back it up with policy. Her chancellor, Philip Hammond, a traditional ally of the banks, was determined to keep austerity going. If nothing else, he could see no other way to create a fiscal surplus big enough to soften the impact of Brexit. Johnson, by contrast, is just enough of an opportunist to see that delivering Brexit, in however self-injuring and punitive a form, gives him both the political power and the regulatory latitude to do things differently.
There is a risk, though, of succumbing to Johnson’s own myth-making. As much as he needs working-class conservatives, they have always existed. And the core Tory voter remains the affluent middle class. What’s more, when it comes to public spending, he’s limited in what he can do by his commitment to freezing most taxes. In an economy that is already weak and likely to be weaker after Brexit, he has little room for serious investment.
And Johnson will face conflicting demands from within his own party. The chancellor, Sajid Javid, has demanded 5 percent cuts from most government departments, making plain that the spending spigots are not about to freely flow. And the prime minister is surrounded by allies who, far from wanting a more interventionist state, want to cut taxes and slash regulations in the interests of a more globally competitive economy.
Epitome of the ‘reckless opportunists’
During the election, Johnson was able to glide over the glaring contradictions in what he said with a bustling con man’s charm, but in office he has to navigate them. With a big majority, he can no longer play the outsider. However, the lesson of nationalist leaders globally is that, in this jittery era, they don’t have to deliver booming success to keep power. From Viktor Orban in Hungary to Narendra Modi in India, these leaders have expanded their base by delivering a personalised, charismatic form of rule in which they are militant defenders of the nation against all comers — be they foreigners, “traitors,” liberals, or leftists.
Johnson is not a nationalist by conviction. He is the epitome of the “reckless opportunists” that, as the sociologist Aeron Davis says, run Britain. His voting record in Parliament shows him to be slightly more liberal than his party. But his performance over the last few months — during which he agitated against Parliament, accused opponents of “collaboration” with Europe, and sabre-rattled against the courts and media — showed him to be adept at using the far right’s template. Whenever the contradictions in his government threaten to unravel, he is likely to return to these tactics.
Indeed, Brexit fits in with that method perfectly. After today, Johnson will be able to continually remind voters that he was able to overcome the hostility of the liberal elite and accomplish his goal.
And as negotiations proceed, he can gin up hostility against his supposed enemies whenever he doesn’t get his way.
Whenever any politician claims to speak for “the people,” someone always pays the price. Migrants are first on the list for Johnson. But they will not be the last.
Brexit has arrived. But Boris Johnson’s reign is just beginning