Rethinking Europe

Boris Johnson: Three Weeks After

Three weeks have now passed since Boris Johnson became the UK’s prime minister. What have we learned so far?

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Takeaways


  • It is all Johnson, Johnson, Johnson. Cabinet government is dead. It is a one-man show.
  • Johnson is spraying around promises to curry favor with the public. But he continues to be seen as the most unpopular prime minister ever.
  • Once the House of Commons is back and it is clear that the EU27 will not haul up the white flag of surrender to Johnson, things will change.
  • No one should make any political judgements until Parliament is back. And not until after the party conference season is over. October will be the decisive month.

1. The leopard has not changed his spots

Johnson’s tempestuous energy which in the past poured itself into writing endless articles over a 25-year-period is undimmed. He continues to write for any paper that will publish him all sorts of diatribes that will please his voter base.

To this arsenal, he now adds Facebook appeals produced at Downing Street. The latest was a promise to make life much harsher for prisoners and to build new prisons to house 10,000 future criminals. The UK has by far the largest number of women and men incarcerated in Europe.

Why is he doing that? Johnson cannot copy Trump and attack Muslims. He cannot copy Salvini and attack refugees. He cannot copy Kaczynski and copy attack gays.

But to satisfy his voters’ palpable sense of indignation, he has chosen to be very tough on the women and men who are mostly locked up for non-violent offences. These include items such as petty fraud or providing recreational drugs to, well, politicians like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in their younger years.

2. It is all Johnson, Johnson, Johnson

Cabinet government is dead. It is a one-man show.

3. Johnson is spraying around promises, all unpaid for so far

Boris Johnson wants new railways in the north of England, new housing, more scientists. The financing question aside, there is no evidence in the opinion polls that anyone is convinced.

All these spending initiatives are the acts of a desperado who wants to curry favor with the public. Johnson continues to be seen as the most unpopular prime minister ever.

4. The economics of Brexit continue to deteriorate

The UK economy has shrunk for the first time in seven years and the British pound has sunk spectacularly, causing real pain to millions of British holiday makers in Europe or North America. One could almost say that the pound has merged with the euro — as the two currencies are almost at par.

Les Echos, the French financial paper, reports that traders see the pound at parity with the dollar before long.

In the past, such major devaluations have done major damage to governments – think Harold Wilson in 1967 or John Major after the pound’s expulsion from the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Meanwhile, supermarket chiefs appear on the BBC to report fears about long queues to enter the UK with fresh produce.

5. John Bolton’s alluring offer

The Trump administration sent its National Security Adviser from Washington to Downing Street to attack the EU.

Bolton, not a trade expert of any kind, promises trade deals for manufactured goods, but freely admits that the big money spinners of financial services and agriculture will take longer.

Meanwhile, British farmers, traditionally close to the Tory Party, are terrified of U.S. mass-produced food. The fear is not just serious health concerns, but meats being dumped into the UK to the point of closing down domestic lamb farming.

Bolton has made clear that the UK must follow Trump’s line of his trade war with China, as well as his military confrontation with Iran. Johnson offering himself up to act as Trump’s vassal, with the UK following blindly all Trump-Bolton lines, is not popular.

6. Johnson’s daily incantations on the EU ring hollow

Johnson says daily that the UK will be fully and completely out of the EU on October 31st. On the surface, that rhetoric seems to be working, but only because parliament is not sitting.

But a storm is building up. Despite the new Prime Minister’s constant gung-hoism, a clear majority of Conservative MPs who are frightened from a business perspective of Johnson’s rhetoric of cutting all economic links with Europe.

Once the House of Commons is back and it is indisputably clear that the EU27 will not haul up the white flag of surrender to Johnson, things will change.

How uncertain the current situation is can be seen in the daily newspaper chatter. Some see an early general election, but few Tory MPs want to risk their seats.

Then there are think tanks speculating about votes of no confidence, or even such ideas of the Queen interfering, a Government of National Unity (GNU) or a surreal proposal from a Green MP for a cabinet consisting only of women to handle Brexit.

Conclusion

The best advice is for no one to make any political judgements until Parliament is back and probably not until after the party conference season is over. October will be the decisive month.

Then we will see if Johnson is the revolutionary Robespierre or Trotsky of Brexit or whether he is interested in staying in power for years rather than risk a parliamentary, constitutional and economic crisis not seen in Britain since the supremacy of the Commons was established at the end of the 17th century.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.” [London]. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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