STRAWS in the wind? Maybe. An overdeveloped sense of cynicism and scepticism laced with premonition on my part? Perhaps. But the past few months have given enough indications to justify misgivings that, on several pressing issues of contemporary policy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is progressively abandoning the positions on which his General Election campaign was based less than a year ago.
On immigration, both legal and illegal, election pledges are going significantly unfulfilled. Johnson has failed to withdraw Britain from the UN Migration Compact signed up to by Theresa May – an action which you might think would have lent considerable leverage to the negotiations with the EU over our future relationship – which we at TCW set last December as one of the five key tests by which we could judge whether he was to delight or disappoint us.
The promised ‘control’ of illegal cross-Channel migration and people-smuggling has not only not materialised, but numerically has worsened. Operationally, it has descended into farce; if deploying an Airbus Atlas A-300M transport to conduct low-level Channel surveillance patrols wasn’t a desperate enough ploy to try to convince a sceptical population that action was being taken, how about the idea of catching illegal migrant boats using nets?
The points-based assessment system looks reasonably robust but the legislation faces defeat in the overwhelmingly pro-Remain House of Lords. Meanwhile, attempts to deport illegal migrants and asylum-seekers whose claims have been rejected are regularly thwarted by ‘liberal’-Left open-borders activist human rights lawyers. Yet in the EU negotiations possible concessions over free movement and/or the continuing jurisdiction in Britain of the European Courts frequently pop up on the radar.
If pre-election Johnson was suspiciously susceptible to the blandishments of the eco-lobby, post-election Johnson appears in total thrall to the Green Blob. Scarcely a speech passes without some hyperbolic reference to how Britain’s economic recovery from Covid-19 will be built on a ‘green’ energy investment and production bonanza, despite its so far unmitigated expense, its continuing reliance on fossil fuel back-up and its still relatively low contribution to the total energy demand.
Consider for one moment the Britain in prospect under the rolling Covid-19 lockdowns to which Johnson appears irrevocably committed, despite the increasingly powerful and widespread arguments for a different approach, less damaging to our economy and society. Whole areas under virtual house arrest. Travel, especially aviation, severely restricted. Businesses collapsing with unemployment growing. Rising energy prices. An increasing role for the State in the economy, needing to be financed of course by higher taxes, especially enviro-taxes.
Now tell how this doesn’t go a fair way towards meeting the strident demands of hard-Left, anti-capitalist, eco-totalitarian Extinction Rebellion. Undue influence from the distaff side, perhaps?
Johnson’s condescending assurance to newly Tory-voting electors in the Midlands and North, worried about losing their jobs in the developing economic fallout from lockdown, and apprehensive about whether they’ll be allowed to see their relatives at Christmas or to boil a kettle from ‘renewable’ energy – provided, of course, the wind is blowing hard enough (NB, not too hard) – is unlikely to retain their loyalty. Who can blame them?
The allegedly ‘libertarian’ Boris Johnson has not been much in evidence during 2020’s explosion of Leftist wokery at not only street, but also political, institutional, media, cultural and academic, levels. He has been reticent, to say the least, in robustly defending free speech, and has largely refrained from unduly criticising egregious instances of corporate wokeness.
Particularly unedifying was the image of him, bunkered and mute in Number Ten, while hard-Left Black Lives Matter/Antifa protesters violently trashed the Parliament Square statue of his supposed hero Churchill, Johnson finally emerging after the statue had been boarded up for its own protection. We appear to have elected a Prime Minister reluctant to defend our history and heritage when both are under (literally) physical assault.
On Brexit, my TCW colleagues Adrian Hill and Tim Bradshaw have in recent weeks done a sterling job of chronicling the twists and turns of the tortuous negotiations with Brussels over Britain’s future relationship with the EU. To repeat their arguments would be superfluous, so that I need merely summarise and comment here.
Despite Johnson’s tough talk for public consumption, it’s been possible to detect potential harbingers of compromise and concession. While the EU’s, and Barnier’s, intransigence continues virtually unabated, there has been talk of the deadline being extended to ensure Britain doesn’t leave without a trade deal, within which it would be surprising if some concessions were not made.
Some of the direst security warnings of Project Fear are being dusted off and regurgitated. Meanwhile, the EU still insists on retaining enforcement powers in any UK trade deal, while rumours circulate that an accommodation will be reached on the continued jurisdiction, after the end of the transition period, of the ECJ on business regulation.
On fishing rights, if arguably not the most economically significant issue then certainly the most politically totemic, can we be sure that a government seemingly powerless to stop rubber dinghies full of illegal migrants crossing the Channel has the determination to resist, whatever it takes, the threatened ongoing predation on our sovereign fishing grounds? The likelihood of compromise to avoid confrontation surely can’t be ruled out.
For a PM who prioritises being liked over being feared and respected, his record of resiling from previous commitments since last December’s election, and his evident susceptibility to pressure, cannot but produce apprehension that potentially damaging last-minute concessions will be made, purely to avoid No Deal.
On relationships with our natural Anglosphere allies, according to the Times Johnson has ordered the No 10 team and key government departments to establish links with the Biden team, citing private polling telling him that Trump is unlikely to be re-elected.
It isn’t hard to see where this could be going. Are they hoping to use the anti-Brexit and EU-favouring Biden’s hostility to a good US-UK trade deal as an excuse to make last-minute concessions to Brussels, and thus be ‘forced’ to concede a BRINO 2.0 that separates us much less from the EU?
On the other hand, if Trump does win, he’s unlikely to thank Johnson for cosying up to Biden in mid-campaign, and will be less inclined to give us a good US-UK trade deal. This, of course, can be also be used as the excuse for making last-minute concessions to Brussels and thus retaining a BRINO 2.0.
All this will inevitably have electoral consequences. At TCW we were among the first to warn of it, and mainstream media commentators are now wising up to the prospect of Johnson’s Red Wall crumbling fast.
As Rachel Sylvester points out in the Times, back-bench pressure from Tory MPs worried about retaining their seats is starting to crystallise. Johnson’s apparently cavalier attitude towards the travails his lockdowns risk inflicting on the North can only revive the tropes about the ‘Conservatives’ being a party for the affluent South, predicts Nick Cohen at the Spectator.
Seldom in modern political history can such a newly acquired electoral advantage have been so recklessly and needlessly squandered in so short a time. Whether it’s deliberate, accidental, or, as friend of TCW Mary Harrington argues persuasively over at UnHerd, Johnson hasn’t recovered from Covid and, notwithstanding his colourful ‘I’m fitter than a butcher’s dog’ metaphor, is suffering from long-Covid, leaving us effectively leaderless, is a moot point.
I don’t believe Johnson cares overmuch about the potential electoral impact of all this on his party. I suspect he’s discovered that, in contrast to becoming PM, he doesn’t very much like actually being PM, because the job is too much like hard work, often involving having to choose that which he must judge is the least bad from several equally unpalatable and unpopular options.
On the other hand, as the new biography of him by Tom Bower, Johnson is not so much fundamentally lazy as chronically ill-disciplined and temperamentally disinclined to immerse himself in details. It’s easy to conclude that his innate desire to be popular rather than respected makes him find the stimulus of campaigning infinitely more agreeable than the more humdrum yet far more complicated business of governing.
Moreover, he’s already allegedly complaining to friends that becoming PM has left him well short of the income he needs to fund the consequences of his priapic, chaotic personal life. He knows he can make considerably more money as an ex-PM and journalist than an incumbent PM. Presumably he’ll claim ‘family reasons’ or something similar at the opportune moment.
I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I fear we are about to be royally shafted on Brexit, just as Johnson is currently doing on Covid, immigration, wokery and greenery. Messing up Brexit could even be his crowning excuse, and his chosen route out.