The Early Warning Signs of Boris

There is a new day in British politics, or so we’re told. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just got his Brexit deal through the House of Commons. He has revealed part of his agenda for government after winning a historic election.

The Conservative campaign was devoid of content beyond ‘Get Brexit done’. However, Johnson has pledged to reform the bloated civil service and expand the powers of the executive at the cost of the judiciary and Parliament. Outside these changes, Johnson has promised to raise health-care funding and infrastructure investment.

The Johnson era will likely be more One Nation Tory than full-blooded Thatcherite since it has to satisfy a new chunk of voters. The Conservative government is now in the unusual position of holding sway over much of the English North and the Midlands.

The so-called ‘red wall’ of Labour seats – including many constituencies that had been Labour for as long as they have existed – was bulldozed in one cold December night. But there is no guarantee these seats will stay blue forever.

“You may only have lent us your vote, you may not think of yourself as a natural Tory,” Johnson said in his victory speech. “Your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper before you put your cross in the Conservative box, and you may return to Labour next time round.”

“If that is the case, I am humbled that you have put your trust in me and you have put your trust in us,” the PM added.

It’s not impossible to imagine these seats returning to Labour once Brexit is ‘done’. Johnson knows he has a small window to rush through legislation to lock-in Northern support. This is why Johnson was quick to announce an £80 billion ($104 billion) investment plan for infrastructure in the North and the Midlands.

The most radical part of Johnson’s agenda remains Brexit, but he can’t run on this alone. So the National Health Service was a key focus in the Queen’s Speech, where Johnson sought to cull the threat of the Labour Party in the North once and for all.

This is also because the right-wing Brexit deal will fail to deliver national renewal. The fantasy is that the European Union stands in the way of much greater prosperity and free trade, even a free-market utopia where individuals rise and fall according to merit.

In reality, the UK will take a hit in its growth rate and the capitalist class will face the loss of business-friendly European directives. The era of British finance is living on borrowed time and Brexit will only make its demise more likely.

The good news is that Tory Brexit will fail on its own terms. The bad news is that the UK will pay the price for it, not the British ruling class and its favourite jester Boris. The future looks bleak, but the future is still to be fought over and won.

The shapeshifter

All of these policy announcements suit the Boris style. The man is anything but a conviction politician and much more of a shapeshifter than his predecessors. He went from free-market libertarian to metropolitan liberal Tory to populist Brexiteer in the space of 15 years.

Johnson started out as a journalist and was fired for making up a quote. He would later edit The Spectator and commission such esteemed writers as Taki Theodoracopulos – a defender of the Wehrmacht and Holocaust deniers like Ernst Nolte.

Max Hastings, who used to edit Johnson’s work at The Daily Telegraph, put it succinctly: “I would not trust him with my wife nor – from painful experience – my wallet.”

“It is unnecessary to take any moral view about his almost crazed infidelities, but it is hard to believe that any man so conspicuously incapable of controlling his own libido is fit to be trusted with controlling the country,” Hastings said.

During the Blair years, Johnson was a critic of the New Labour government and its infringements on civil liberties. This was after he was fired from the Conservative shadow cabinet for lying about an affair. Fortunately, his schoolyard friend-cum-rival David Cameron found a job for him to do – London Mayor.

Naturally, Johnson ran as a liberal Tory and frequently praised multiculturalism and open borders. He would heap praise on bankers one minute and embarrass David Cameron the next by decrying the housing crisis as ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’.

When it came to Brexit, Johnson dawdled and wrote two articles before coming out for Leave. Tory grandee Ken Clarke was filmed bad-mouthing the candidates during the 2016 Conservative leadership election. He singled out the phony Leave candidates in particular.

“I don’t think either Andrea Leadsom or Boris Johnson are actually in favour of leaving the European Union,” said Clarke. “It was the obvious thing that the voters, i.e. Conservative Party members, were going to vote Leave.”

Today, Johnson is often compared to Donald Trump despite his past efforts to distance himself from the billionaire. It’s now an open secret that the Tory government is looking to cut a trade deal with the Trump administration – putting the NHS on a plate for US multinationals to gouge for fat profits.

Yet the lack of a coherent worldview is exactly what Johnson has in common with Trump. If there is a core to Johnson’s worldview, it’s a streak of ruthlessness and nastiness that runs through his life story. The same can be said of ‘The Donald’.

The Tory establishment has good reasons to distrust Boris Johnson. As traditionalist conservative Peter Hitchens said of Johnson: “I have always quite liked him, but I wouldn’t ask him to look after my cat for a weekend, let alone put him in charge of a medium-sized nuclear power.”

The British establishment has overcome its trust issues with Boris. The man has won a huge majority and the Tory Party will never cease thanking him for it. He will be seen as the man who saved the party and returned it to the glory days of the Iron Lady, but only if he can hold it together for the next five years.

The new regime

The Johnson era has only just started, but it’s increasingly clear what will define the years ahead. The new regime favours a slight relief from austerity, new constraints on democratic freedoms and greater executive powers.

The UK can expect voter ID checks to become compulsory and a round of boundary changes to cut down the number of constituencies. Both of these changes will help reinforce the Conservative majority. Meanwhile Parliament will lose the power to hold the executive accountable in trade talks with the EU.

Although capitalism is leaner and meaner than it was in 2010, the British ruling class can afford to cash in on cheap debt and shore up support for the system. However, this does not mean the UK will see an economic boom. The engine of growth is running on fumes. This is why the NHS will be on the platter for US businesses to pick over.

Sadly, the Leave voters don’t care as much about these issues as they do about national sovereignty and strong border controls. Some people are so disillusioned they don’t believe it’s possible to reverse decades of deregulation and privatisation. This is the state of nature for many voters. The system should work, if it weren’t for those foreigners.

This is why Johnson has pledged to ‘create’ an Australian-style points based immigration system. This will effectively impose skill tiers on EU migrants coming to the UK. It’s worth mentioning that Gordon Brown introduced the points system for non-EU nationals in 2008. So this is merely the extension of the same immigration system.

Nevertheless, the popular narrative around UK immigration policy is that the country has seen wave after wave of uncontrolled immigration for decades. These border controls have discriminated in favour of certain migrants (particularly wealthy, highly educated migrants) for more than 10 years and the numbers have not fallen.

The purpose of the points-based system was never to reduce immigration, but to create tiers of disciplined labour and privilege the rich over the poor. The flow of cheap labour will have to keep going because the UK economy is still stagnant and will be for many years to come.

The British economy is defined by low taxes for the rich and low wages for the poor. Finance and services are the two biggest sectors, while the country suffers from low productivity and remains dependent on imports from the EU and elsewhere.

The only way to get through Brexit would be to implement radical social democratic policies and reconstruct the industrial base of the country. A weak pound could have been an opportunity for an export boom, but the UK destroyed its industrial base long ago.

There is no chance of the UK’s fortunes being reversed with Boris Johnson in power. He has managed to consolidate support for Brexit and use it to keep his class in power over the population for another term at least. All we can do now is look for ways to fight back – whether in Parliament or in the streets.


Josh White is the author of Goodbye United Kingdom: Descent into Chaos (2015-2022).