In pledging a “new golden age” for Britain, Boris Johnson has become the third Tory prime minister to promise a break with his party’s Thatcherite past. First came David Cameron, who undertook to deliver a green and compassionate Conservatism. Next was Theresa May, with her pledges to tackle Britain’s “burning injustices”. Now Johnson has celebrated his election victory by claiming to herald the dawn of a new, blue-collar conservatism that will “unite and level up”.
If Cameron and May teach us anything, it is that the rhetoric of one-nation Conservatism provides an easy feint for a toxic and divisive governing agenda. Cameron set in train a decade of spending cuts that have left public services ravaged and that eroded any semblance of a decent safety net, while delivering expensive tax cuts that have disproportionately benefited the affluent. May doubled down on austerity, introduced a hostile environment that resulted in people who have lived legally in Britain for decades wrongly deported and, instead of adopting a unifying approach to Brexit, embraced the firmest of red lines in order to keep the Eurosceptics in her party on side. Johnson’s electoral success is partly the result of running against the record of his predecessors, though he was a senior member of May’s government. If we are to believe his election pitch, this is a government that will unite the country by getting Brexit done, close the stark geographical inequalities by investing in the north and the Midlands and revitalise the nation’s schools and hospitals.
The big difference is not ideological: Johnson’s leadership of the Vote Leave campaign and his record in May’s government have shown he is just as comfortable in resorting to xenophobic dog whistles and cosying up to the fanatically Eurosceptic flank of his party as the price of power. It is the size of his majority that means he faces far less of a party management problem than May or Cameron and has earned the right to set his own direction. Some of the constituencies that have been hardest hit by austerity and that stand to lose the most from a hard Brexit have turned blue for the first time in decades, giving Johnson a fresh political imperative to soften May’s approach to cuts and Brexit.
There is nothing about his first week that suggests he will take the opportunity to do so. On Brexit, the withdrawal bill has been stripped of several measures: protection for workers’ rights; the requirement for parliamentary approval on the government’s negotiating objectives on the future relationship with the EU; and, most shamefully, legal protections for refugee children reunited with family members in the UK.
There is a clear choice between accepting alignment with EU regulation or going down the path of an economically calamitous Brexit that risks destabilising the Northern Ireland peace process. Yet in insisting there will be “no alignment” to EU rules after the transition period, Johnson continues to deny this trade-off exists and his bill outlaws any extension to this beyond next December, despite the fact this is not enough time to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal. If he carries on in this vein, Britain is heading for, at best, a bare-bones agreement that will result in a border in the Irish Sea and will bring harsh economic costs in terms of jobs and widening regional inequalities.
His domestic agenda stops far short of reversing the pernicious spending cuts of the last decade. Cameron and May have run the NHS into the ground; the last two months have seen its worst-ever performance on waiting times for A&E care and cancer treatment. The extra money pledged is the bare minimum required and will not solve the NHS’s long-term staffing crisis. The government’s plans to increase school funding after a decade of cuts will benefit those serving disadvantaged communities far less than those in wealthier areas. The focus on longer sentencing to fight crime flies in the face of all the evidence about how to make communities safer, while cuts to policing, the Crown Prosecution Service and prisons have let crime fester.
Under Cameron and May, many low-income families with children lost thousands of pounds a year in tax credits. On this, the Queen’s speech was silent. So the shocking rates of homelessness and child poverty in one of the world’s richest countries will continue to rise. There are no signs of Johnson using his sizable majority to confront the big challenges Britain faces head on: how to care for our ageing society; how to improve the educational and social transition to adulthood for young people who do not go to university; how to step up our action on the climate crisis in order to have any hope of preventing catastrophic levels of global heating.
Instead, the Queen’s speech hinted at measures to strengthen the government vis-a-vis the courts and parliament. Majority Westminster governments are already overmighty, with too few checks or balances. Yet Johnson is threatening to reform the judicial review process that limits the power of government bodies to act unlawfully. It is judicial review that resulted in employment tribunal fees, the Home Office’s extortionate fees for children to claim their right to citizenship and the racially discriminatory right to rent policy being ruled unlawful. This sends an alarming signal about Johnson’s future intention to comply with equality and human rights legislation.
Everything Johnson has done and said so far suggests that his claims to represent a new-one nation Toryism are nothing more than the baseless rhetoric we have come to expect from Conservative prime ministers. It is an ominous sign of what might be to come.
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