Johnson’s Magic Touch Helps the Tories Rise Above the Chaos of Brexit Britain
(Bloomberg) -- Moments after Boris Johnson told Parliament he planned to break a key election pledge and raise taxes on British workers, a WhatsApp message popped up on the phones of Conservative MPs: “PM in the tearoom now.”
Johnson’s charm is by far his strongest political asset and the prime minister put it to work, mug in hand, to calm his Tory troops in the wood-paneled room reserved for members behind the House of Commons chamber. It was Sept. 7, and the start of a turbulent few months for Johnson — and the country.
Since the outbreak of coronavirus, various Tory factions have been alarmed by his decisions that have run counter to traditional Conservative values. He curbed civil liberties via lockdowns, paid billions for workers to go on furlough, and now he’s increasing the tax burden to fund health and social care.
With fuel shortages, spiking electricity prices and fears of a cost of living crisis buffeting a government that has often been in disarray over Covid, political logic would dictate the prime minister should be under siege. Yet Johnson goes to the party’s annual conference starting Sunday in Manchester, northern England, in a seemingly unassailable position.
As Tory strategists plan for a national election in 2024 or earlier, his position is bolstered by opposition Labour Party in-fighting and leader Keir Starmer’s struggle to show he’s a credible prime minister-in-waiting. Johnson has also parked Tory spending tanks on Labour’s lawn, tapping into a weariness with cuts and austerity — imposed by past Conservative governments — since 2010.
The electoral math is also in the Conservative Party’s favor, even as Labour has narrowed the gap in recent opinion polls. Due to Britain’s electoral system and the party’s lost ground in Scotland, Labour likely needs to be ahead by a significant margin to regain power.
Then there is Johnson, whose Teflon qualities and charm have allowed him to ride out personal scandals and professional missteps throughout his career.
“The political trends do not look fantastic, especially given the economy, in the near future,” said Salma Shah, a political commentator and former aide to Sajid Javid when he was Home Secretary. “But you can’t underestimate this particular PM’s personal brand and his ability to bounce back.”
Johnson brought his signature cheeriness to an interview published Saturday with the Times of London, when asked about the potential chaos of empty store shelves this holiday season.
“People are going to have a great Christmas,” he told the newspaper. “What I confidently predict is that this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas. It will be considerably jollier and more festive. The yuletide spirit will flow in much greater abundance.”
One Tory MP, speaking on condition of anonymity, remarked that if Johnson were to be hit by one of the iconic red ‘Boris buses’ he commissioned while he was mayor of London, there’s no one else who can occupy the same space in the public perception. Another said voters remain drawn to his cheerfulness.
A third described Johnson as a generational talent, which makes people look past blemishes on his record to let him lead.
But that is now being put to the test.
Just as in the pandemic, an energy, fuel and food crisis underscores the trade-off made by the Tories when they chose Johnson, prioritizing his undoubted political instincts over questions about his management acumen.
Cost of Living
In a quirk of timing, the Conservative conference comes just as Britain’s looming cost of living crisis is laid bare. The pandemic furlough program which protected more than 11 million jobs closed on Sept. 30, while energy bills went up from Oct. 1 due to sky-high natural gas prices.
From Oct. 6, welfare payments will fall by 20 pounds ($27) a week, against the wishes of some rank-and-file Tories who fear it will make the government look out of touch. One MP privately described it as a totemic issue.
Even on Brexit, which Tories credit Johnson with delivering, the ground looks shakier as a labor shortage — including critically among truck drivers — leaves Britain with empty supermarket shelves and gas stations running dry.
The government wants to blame the chaos on the pandemic rather than the divorce deal Johnson signed with the European Union, to the extent that one Tory MP said Brexit is hardly discussed on the party’s internal Whatsapp threads for fear of not showing loyalty to the project. But another wondered how long that line can hold among voters, as the supply chain ructions mount.
Left and Right
Johnson has responded to the various crises with his signature political zigzagging. Tax rises to pay for healthcare are straight from Labour’s playbook; trimming welfare to help his Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak start repairing public finances is more of a Thatcherite move.
He’s even U-turned, in a limited way, on his Brexit promise to end the U.K.’s reliance on the EU’s labor pool by granting temporary visas for 5,000 foreign truckers and 5,500 poultry workers.
The prime minister has always been a political pragmatist. But policies that defy traditional Tory values also reflect the broader church he has to hold together after his party made significant inroads in Labour’s northern England heartlands in the 2019 election.
That disconnect between party and government will be on show at the conference, one Tory MP predicted. When Johnson makes his keynote speech on Wednesday, it will be to a pro-Brexit crowd who are worried about how images of fuel shortages hurt Britain’s global standing, and suspicious of the debt his government has accrued spending its way through the pandemic.
Sunak’s presence works in Johnson’s favor at such times, with the chancellor often striking a very different tone to the prime minister on spending. His desire to balance the books -- he announces a new budget on Oct. 27 — is also vital to try to convince foreign investors the U.K. is still a secure bet.
Johnson’s sense of history and legacy will mean he’s acutely aware of the potential for a so-called winter of discontent — with energy and fuel at its heart — to topple a government, as it did to Labour in 1979.
Ultimately though, his own career history is of defying political gravity. And he’s likely to do so again, according to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.
“He is a great campaigner but not the most competent chief executive,” Bale said in an interview. “And yet, and yet…” Bale recalled just how often Johnson has emerged through crises intact, including after the U.K. recorded one of the world’s highest death tolls in the pandemic on his watch.
“There have been so many moments when ‘with one bound he was free’.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.