Boris Johnson’s Clear and Present Danger
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With an eight point lead in the opinion polls, an 83-seat majority in the House of Commons and economic growth figures for the second quarter revised upwards from 4.8% to 5.5%, what does U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson have to fear?
Although the opposition Labour party requires an enormous swing of more than 10% at the next general election to win outright — the party’s internal rifts were on display during its torrid conference week — the prime minister is not sitting pretty. Johnson could still lose his House of Commons majority if shortages in the shops and at the petrol pumps lead to a loss of confidence in his government’s competence.
“A nightmare for Christmas shoppers” is widely predicted. Inflation is back, domestic energy bills are soaring and fuel shortages have led to fist fights in petrol station forecourts, captured on social media sites. It’s hardly the ideal backdrop to the ruling Conservative party’s conference, which meets in Labour’s Manchester city stronghold this weekend. Johnson’s party faithful are already gloomy about recent tax rises to pay for pandemic spending.
Meanwhile the pound is falling against the dollar with no end in sight. The currency markets are not impressed by the U.K.’s resilience in the face of supply-chain bottlenecks. Even revised upwards, the economy is still 3.3% smaller than before the pandemic. Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey has warned that the recovery is weakening: “The hard yards,” he says, lie ahead. The prime minister’s critics complain of an “Autumn of Discontent” — a phrase freighted with memories of the strike-bound 1970s when the country was in the grip of stagflation and uncollected rubbish piled up in the streets.
The doom-mongering is overblown but Johnson, to use his favorite current phrase, needs to “get a grip.”
He made it to the top by running against his party’s leadership. A talent for administration was never part of that winning formula. Johnson led the referendum campaign to leave the European Union in defiance of the then Tory prime minister, David Cameron. At one private event I heard him cooly calculate the odds that there was no personal downside to rebellion. He also brought down Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, by opposing her Brexit deal with Brussels.
Now two years after his sweeping victory over the unelectable far left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson’s problem is that he can’t run against himself. With Brexit done and the pandemic in abeyance, the buck for everything stops with him. A talent for improvisation is all very well, but what is the prime minister’s strategy? As the economic clouds darken, the U.K. needs to move from a just-in-time economy to a resilient just-in-case one.
The prime minister’s instinct is to reshuffle his pack. When he was overwhelmed by administrative chaos in his first year as mayor of London, he simply fired his top executives and replaced them with competent ones. Last month the prime minister sacked his Cabinet’s worst performers after standing by them for too long. But this revamped team needs a clear direction of travel.
In his overlong conference speech on Wednesday Labour’s leader Keir Starmer identified the prime minister’s weak point — administrative competence. Johnson was not a “bad man,” he sniffed, but “a trivial man…, a showman... a trickster who has performed his one trick” — that would be Brexit. If the voters tire of their Micawberish prime minister, then Starmer offers himself as the serious alternative — a former Crown Prosecutor with executive experience.
Economic woes are a threat to Johnson’s new electoral coalition. Working-class voters lapped up Johnson’s patriotic feel-good message and abandoned their traditional allegiance to Labour in 2019. The Tories, hitherto the party of affluent and aspirational voters, won an astounding 48% share of working-class support, while Labour was reduced to 33%.
These just-getting-by folk, however, will suffer disproportionately from rises in basic commodities and foodstuffs partly caused by a shortage of truck drivers. The cost-of-living crisis hits them hardest. A temporary 20 pound ($27) rise in welfare benefits during the pandemic will soon be withdrawn and the government furlough ended this week.
The country’s supply-chain problems pre-date Johnson’s term of office. Post-Brexit they take on real urgency. The country was overdependent on foreign truck drivers before leaving the European Union but new immigration rules have exacerbated a continent-wide shortage. Johnson’s government never saw the danger coming. Licenses for 25,000 new Heavy Goods Vehicle drivers were approved last year, 17,000 fewer than normal. In January, just 173 were granted.
Higher wages should eventually fix the bottlenecks caused by the withdrawal of cheap foreign labour, but delivery prices will therefore have to rise. More effort needs to be made to retrain workers to fill the gaps.
Other chickens are coming home to roost. Johnson’s cheeseparing Tory predecessors were responsible for cutting gas storage capacity to a mere three days supply. The Conservatives also stole a popular but economically perverse policy from Labour of price-capping energy bills. When the cost of gas rises and suppliers can’t raise their charges, they simply go bust. Nine energy companies have already collapsed, more are likely to follow.
As the country transitions to a non-carbon economy, there will be more mismatches between supply and demand. Gas prices will keep rising as the markets mark down new investments in fossil fuels. Has the U.K. got the right energy mix to make up the shortfall? How will electric vehicles be powered without the installation of thousands of new charging points? This colossal undertaking needs careful planning.
The National Health Service is in a poor shape too. The pandemic exposed an acute shortage of hospital beds, faulty stocks of protective clothing and bureaucratic bungling. The NHS faces a backlog of 5.6 million hospital treatments, which may take years to clear. The financial package on offer may be barely sufficient — with no realistic financing of promised new hospitals.
One influential former ally is unimpressed by the government’s strategic shortcomings. Johnson’s de facto chief of staff until last year, Dominic Cummings last week announced that he had put a “sell notice” on Britain,” telling readers of his private newsletter that he had divested all his shares because the British state can’t cope with further disruptions to supply chains.
That may be a drastic response by a figure tainted by a bitter fallout with Johnson. But there is beneath the bluster and confidence a fragility to the Boris ascendancy. In an uncertain new political autumn, he needs grip, consistency and a clearer sense of priorities. The faithful remain his fans. It’s the waverers he needs to reassure.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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