Lucky Boris – now the long game begins

Napoleon demanded that his generals be lucky.  Conservative PM Boris Johnson, as he surveys a thumping victory in the British general election, would meet that criterion.

His luck bears a resemblance to that of Margaret Thatcher.  Like her, he has made a decisive break with orthodox establishment thinking. That presents both unique opportunity (assuming the break is in tune with a developing public mood) and acute vulnerability (assuming that the mood takes time to, well, develop).

But at this stage his luck seems the brighter.  She needed the Falklands War to bring her through the shoals.  His reshaping of the Conservative party around a policy of independence and securing a decisive mandate for it, may have done the same, more quickly.

This is not to say his victory is the end of history and governing will now be placid.  Rather, his policy options seem clear and it will likely be a case of sticking to them in the face of opposition obstruction and establishment undermining.

The defining policy issue is national independence (to date argued under the misleading heading of ‘Brexit’).  The ‘remainer’ opposition has already adopted the position that it is “impossible” to conclude a political and economic treaty with the EU inside a year, and Britain has no negotiating capital anyway.

This is strictly wrong but more importantly misses the point.  As economist Brian Williamson points out, the choice for Britain is policy freedom vs (a degree of privileged) trade access.  And there are signs that Europe plans to seek expensive limits on Britain’s policy settings in return for the ‘benefits’ of being part of an increasingly protectionist bloc.

Boris has shown he is prepared to go to the limit in negotiations once.  He will almost certainly have to do so again – and this time perhaps over it.

The second policy issue is national independence (this time under the more accurate heading of ‘the Union’).  The Scottish National Party’s sweep of most of Scotland’s parliamentary seats shows there is a swell of enthusiasm for separation (also present, under different conditions, in Northern Ireland) which shows every sign of developing into a persistent challenge.

Assuming he continues to be for Union, the task will require constant and politically thankless management.  That probably means sticking firmly to a policy of willingness to discuss more autonomy but continuing with the (established) formula of excluding Scottish independence for a generation.  Moreover, he will need to think about establishing principles in advance, for example, making clear that it may take a generation to agree a consensual mechanism able to extract high levels of consent from all affected parties, including for example, expatriate Scots.  In any event, full independence will require much more than a simple majority of Scottish residents (we’ve all seen the inadequacy of referenda for resolving complex political issues).

In the absence of movement, one can’t rule out the possibility that the argument shifts towards the streets.  It may be his equivalent of Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 miners’ strike. Even if he correctly picks the mood of the silent majority, it will be a lonely battle.

The third issue will be his government’s economic policy settings.  Usually sensible commentators worry that he may have tacked too far towards high-spending big-state policies, in order to win over Brexit-supporting Labour voters.

It may not be quite as they fear. While he has promised spending increases in key areas like health, policing and infrastructure, he has also signaled that taxes won’t rise.  This will require herculean restraint in other spending areas and imagination in responding to the perception of inequality, but it is mainstream public finance and at this stage feels politically doable.

The political challenge will be micro-economic, using Brexit and targeted deregulation to open more areas of the economy to external competition in order to increase productivity.  Like Thatcher before him, he will find that the costs of economic change, such as plant closures and job losses, are in your face, and the benefits taken for granted. The only pay-off she got was on polling day.

The question we might ask ourselves at this point is whether Boris has anything like Margaret Thatcher’s focus and stamina, as he and his small crew of trusted insiders look ahead.

This is your mission, Boris, should you choose to accept it.  This blog will self-destruct in five seconds. 


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