By Sir Ronald Sanders
There were echoes of US President Donald Trump’s famous campaign slogan, “Make America great again”, in the first parliamentary statement of Britain’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. “Our mission”, Mr. Johnson declared is “making this country the greatest place on earth”.
As with President Trump’s slogan, Prime Minister Johnson’s catchphrase is designed to appeal to a certain section of the population who long for a bygone time when their interests alone were supreme. For an older generation of the English, the lyrics of the British patriotic song, “Rule Britannia”, written in the 18th Century but still lustily sang today, epitomizes how they regard themselves: “When Britain first, at Heaven’s command Arose from out the azure main; This was the charter of the land, And guardian angels sang this strain: ‘Rule, Britannia! rule the waves: Britons never will be slaves.’”.
This idea of a superior Britain – a nation upon whose Empire “the sun never sets” – in large part contributed to the slim majority of 51.9 percent that carried the referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU) in 2016. The older generation – and those who linger in the notion of an England raised up “at heaven’s command” longed for a return of Britain, unshackled from links to its former European foes and free to traverse the world in the expectation of trade and other arrangements that suit Britain and maintain its exceptionalism.
It is from the ranks of such thinking that Mr. Johnson emerged to become Prime Minister of Britain. He has proven himself to be an astute politician, helping to topple two Prime Ministers of his own Conservative party – David Cameron and Theresa May. He has also outfoxed former allies in the campaign to leave the EU who also harboured ambitions to be Prime Minister. His impish schoolboy persona hides his capacity for political machinations without which few leaders achieve their high office.
In his campaign to become Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson talked much about the urgency of BREXIT – the shorthand term for Britain leaving the EU. But, immediately upon assuming office, his longer-term ambitions were made clear. He is in the game for the long haul, including a general election that would give him the national authority, as Prime Minister, that he does not now enjoy.
In his first statement in the House of Commons, he laid out the framework of his manifesto for a general election. This included: changing tax rules; providing funding for frontline public services, “to deliver better healthcare, better education and more police on the streets”; making sure the National Health Service receives funds to pay for 20 hospital upgrades and winter-readiness; providing proposals for drastically reducing waiting times at hospitals and for appointments with doctors; increasing the minimum level of per pupil funding in primary and secondary schools and returning education funding to previous levels; investing in infrastructure, fibre rollout, transport and housing that can improve people’s quality of life and fuel economic growth and provide opportunity.
In echoes of President Trump, Mr. Johnson, in more coded language, also addressed immigration – one of the core issues that influenced the pro-Brexit vote among those opposed to migrants – by saying: “No-one believes more strongly than me in the benefits of migration to our country. But I am clear that our immigration system must change. I will ask the Migration Advisory Committee to conduct a review of that system as the first step in a radical rewriting of our immigration system”.
And, he promised that “we will look back on this period, this extraordinary period, as the beginning of a new golden age for our United Kingdom”.
The problem Mr. Johnson faces is that he has taken over a Kingdom that is far from united. More than 48 percent of the British people did not vote for BREXIT, and many have since voted with their feet, migrating where they could to other European countries, including neighbouring Republic of Ireland which remains staunchly in the EU. Additionally, business, particularly in the key financial services sector, have shifted their operations from London into other capitals in Europe to maintain their access to the much larger EU market that could disappear without a BREXIT deal favourable to Britain.
The chances of Mr. Johnson being able to improve on the deal, negotiated by Theresa May and rejected by the British Parliament, are pretty remote. He knows that despite the brave face he puts on it. Come October 31, he will either have to accept the May deal or walk away from Europe with no deal. Politically, he could not accept the May deal.
So, in his parliamentary statement, he began the process of preparing the British public for no deal with the EU. Mr. Johnson declared that “the UK is better prepared for that (no deal) situation than many believe. In the 98 days that remain to us we must turbo-charge our preparations to make sure that there is as little disruption as possible to our national life. I believe that is possible with the kind of national effort that the British people have made before and will make again”.
Deal or no deal, Mr. Johnson is living on tenuous grounds. He has inherited a minority government and any three defectors could abruptly and swiftly end his political life. He, therefore, urgently needs legitimacy as Prime Minister. He knows that his best chance of achieving that goal is an election contest with a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn in whom there is insufficient national confidence.
Shortly after October 31, Britain will have another general election at which politicians will be punished or rewarded for BREXIT. Either way, the UK economy which slowed to 1.4 per cent in 2018, the slowest rate since 2012, will require astute management, much of it dependent on Britain concluding beneficial trade agreements and new investment in financial services and manufacturing – a daunting prospect since the UK will be negotiating from a position of weakness with the bigger economies – US, China and India.
Mr. Johnson has now opened the can of worms he helped to create.
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)