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Sunday, September 27, 2020
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Johnson doesn’t have time to dither

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BORIS Johnson has been Prime Minister for seven months, of which the two most recent have been spent with a huge majority in the Commons, against a lame-duck opposition, with the Brexit Party, the only party that might steal his base, a busted flush. So why hasn’t he changed anything?

Yes, I know he’s already declared Brexit, but we remain in a transition period, still in the single market and customs union until January 1 next year, with no practical change except the freedom to negotiate free-trade agreements without the EU. He still must negotiate a post-Brexit relationship or exit without a deal. That range of possibilities is highly contradictory, between close alignment (to the delight of Remainers) and default WTO terms.

Close alignment or an extension would finish his premiership. In 2019, he blamed his broken promises on a lack of Parliamentary majority, but in 2020 he has no such excuse. He must deliver more than a minimal Brexit or the party will lose its supporters all over again and provoke years more of Brexiteering.

You might grant that Johnson is being careful and necessarily risk-averse, but he doesn’t have time: he must deliver Brexit within slightly more than ten months. The quickest trade deal reached elsewhere with the EU took two and a half years. Johnson keeps citing the Canada deal, which took seven years. He wants something more complicated.

Despite so much to do, Johnson’s administration had not planned new negotiations before March 3, a lack of urgency which is unforgivable. From what I understand, Johnson himself is indecisive about his negotiating position, while much of his government retains its unreformed Remainer bias.

Further evidence of indecision came last week in the form of a first speech from Johnson’s chief negotiator. Why so late? Why so thin? David Frost is an appointee, free of the strictures of the civil service. Yet his speech was philosophical, except to rule out the EU’s most ridiculous demand (regulatory alignment). 

You might excuse this lack of specificity as playing one’s cards close to one’s chest, but it didn’t work for Theresa May. The EU played for time, until May was desperate. When the EU gets to set the agenda, either it gets what it wants or Britain looks clueless and uncompromising. Hence, in 2017, May was bounced into agreeing a divorce bill before the EU would talk further. And still the EU could not be satisfied.

In other areas, too, Johnson prefers abstractions and slogans to policy specifications; his commitments seem contradictory, philosophically and practically. He wants to spend like a socialist, tax our pensions like a Blairite, capitulate to China like a neoliberal, ridicule America like a Europhile, live in sin like a French president.

Where in this is the classical liberalism that founded British conservatism, the libertarianism that Johnson once declared as personal, the Thatcherism that he once professed to admire, the Western-centrism that he (as a popular historian) offered as a solution to our aimlessness?

Now he has the power, Johnson is missing opportunities to reset the political discourse from the Marxist-progressive-neoliberal dogma that masquerades as ‘centrist/moderate’ consensus. It is still early days but he’s already missing opportunities to reform the institutional legacies of this dogma: the white elephants (eg HS2), the quangos, the oppression of free speech, the reverse prejudices that pretend to be righteous campaigns against ‘hate crimes’, the unelected judges who decide what Parliament really meant, international regimes of ‘rights’ without democratic mandate, the moral hazard of public services which blame failure on austerity, a NHS that demands more money without improving accountability or safety, police forces that prefer to appease than enforce.

On immigration, Johnson claims to fulfil election pledges for reform. His administration’s recently announced policy aims to select ‘economically-worthier’ immigrants according to a points system. As well as its many loopholes, it ignores the routine use of the international asylum/refugee regime and the European norm of ‘right to remain’ as alternative immigration systems. Thus, while his policy is philosophically aligned with popular will and party manifesto, practically it is useless. Any migrant who can’t enter on points can do so on a fake claim to asylum; even if this claim is proved false (a high bar), courts are in the habit of granting right to remain to anyone who asks for it. Brexit does not change that norm; to change it would require legislation, but Johnson’s administration has not billed any clarification of the right to remain. Presumably, it is scared of being characterised as racist, fascist, insular, isolationist, etc. This is the triumph of weak politics over strong policy.

The gap between philosophy and practice is revealed by the differences emerging between the Prime Minister and his chief adviser. While Dominic Cummings’s voice is still full of insurgency and reform, Johnson is full of caution and pander. While Cummings wants to upturn the civil service, Johnson wants continuity.  

Politicians can achieve both reform and popularity if they can persuade the public of the incorrectness of the conventional wisdom or the correctness of the alternative. Margaret Thatcher remains Britain’s most successful Conservative politician because she was brilliant at both policy science and political communication. She overturned the socialist dogmas to which her predecessors acquiesced, and she codified a conservatism that we know by her name. We can judge how far the party has shifted by noting that during the leadership contest in 2019 no candidate identified with Thatcherism.

Johnson has succeeded to the political pinnacle, but he’s spent years on the fringe of his party and even of Parliament (he restored his political career as Mayor of London). Perhaps he is still practising the wrong lesson: you hang around the fringe, championing popular disaffection without giving the party an excuse for expulsion, while waiting for the core to mess up so often and so dogmatically that the party eventually shifts your way when the only alternative is electoral oblivion.

That’s only one strategy, and it’s a slow, risky one: you must watch your party head towards destruction without personal influence.

Alternatively, you could take issue with the core, appeal to the populace, and point out the gap between popular cares and elite representation. Donald Trump used this strategy in 2016: he told Republicans: ‘Your party is not representing you. It’s part of a centrist consensus that is more interested in conforming than reforming. And the whole elite is in on it, peddling the same old tired conventional wisdoms and prejudices, so nothing improves.’ After a mostly voluntary purge, the party rallied to him. Republican legislators have never seemed so united around their president.

Trump’s strategy is still winning: I predict a second term in 2021. His approval ratings rose through the impeachment trials. The opposition is playing into his hands by doubling down on loony-Left progressivism that the populace recognises as self-interested but unaffordable (open borders, free healthcare, free tertiary education, cancellation of student debt). Progressives have not abandoned the divisive rhetoric of social justice and identity politics.

Similarly, Johnson faces a loony Labour Party that has finally abandoned a self-righteous, unreliable, dogmatic Marxist but is offering only copies to replace Jeremy Corbyn.

Will Johnson build on that opportunity, like Thatcher in the early 1980s, to fashion a conservatism around which most Britons can rally? Not unless he is more decisive than in his first 70 days.

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Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome is a lecturer in international relations at the University of California Berkeley and an expert on global security risks, international conflict and counterterrorism. He is @riskyscientistson Parler.

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