Has ‘Johnsonism’ arrived?

Britain’s new health minister, Sajid Javid, says he will keep wearing a mask after formal restrictions are removed in the next fortnight.  It’s a more political than public health gesture.  Unless perhaps he’s meeting unvaccinated ministerial visitors from Australia or New Zealand.

Britain’s Covid debate is morphing faster than the virus.  Thanks to the fast spreading Delta variant and a super-charged vaccination programme it’s plausible that pretty much everyone bar Scottish lighthouse keepers will have had Covid antibodies delivered to them by the end of the year via neighbours or needle. 

PM Boris Johnson says this new normal requires trusting the public’s judgement and learning to live with widespread virus, but with low levels of hospitalisation and mortality.  We ought to find out if he’s right quite quickly.

Opposing him?  Hard to define – apart from possibly his own health secretary, it feels broadly like the coalition of folk who think that there are never enough controls.  The Guardian newspaper is an informal house journal for this ‘control establishment’ – see here for example.

It’s a bit like the evolution of the Brexit debate – a confusion of possibilities crystallising into the binary options of doing something or continuing to agonise.  And Boris’s instincts did get him on the right political side of the Brexit call.

So might historians looking back see this as the moment when ‘Johnsonism’ emerged?  And if so, what on earth would such a beast look like?  Perhaps it’s a bit clearer than you might think.

  • The first building block will be the perpetual rowing with Europe.  Point of Order has been banging on about this for some time, but that’s because it’s an inevitability arising from the global ambitions of the EU.  Not a bug, but a feature.  Case study: Switzerland – where the government is preparing for serious retaliation after rejecting the EU’s demand for a ‘framework agreement’ that would have changed Swiss law unilaterally whenever the EU updated its own.
  • Which contributes to the second plank: an economic turning-away from Europe.  The EU has so far refused to recognise the regulatory equivalence of the UK’s critical financial services industry; the UK is integrating its auto sector more closely with that of Japan; and is preparing for a different regulatory approach to the tech industry.  Sure European trade will remain important, but the action and growth are already shifting elsewhere.
  • A third element will be management of political relationships inside the British Isles (note – not Islands), where Irish, Scottish and even Welsh factions want more autonomy – in some cases independence – at the expense of immediate neighbours.  Appeasing these without offending the already-independent English will be his challenge.  A policy of perpetual, one hopes non-violent, rows with occasional concessions looks best.
  • Less immigration. Lots of people – family reunifiers, business people, globalisers, even economists – have valid narrow reasons for favouring more open borders.  But this crashes against widespread generalised nimbyism.  Greater density is unwelcome, even if it raises nominal GDP.
  • Boris’s Conservative Party government won traditional Labour seats at the 2019 election on a promise of reducing regional inequalities by “levelling-up”.  But apart from a more flexible post-EU subsidy framework, they don’t have that many tools for achieving this.  So while Boris talks of new green jobs and regional infrastructure, he will be praying that private sector investors, suitably encouraged, can help him out.
  • Finally, Boris is trying to be the liberal-but-anti-woke candidate.  Given the increasingly shrill demands of wokeism, this strategy holds promise. And Boris has a better record than most of his political contemporaries for sniffing out current political trends.

This lacks the intellectual underpinnings or economic coherence of Thatcherism, but Margaret Thatcher had Keith Joseph’s brain and heart to help her, while Boris had the more mercurial Dominic Cummings.  Then again, a successful political regime tends to be its own justification.

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