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Boris Johnson Asserts His Power – OpEd


By Cornelia Meyer*

There is a new sheriff in town, and he is asserting his power. After a resounding victory in the December 2019 election, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party enjoys a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons. He and his advisor Dominic Cummings have wasted little time asserting their power.

On Feb. 13, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Andrea Leadsome and Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general for England and Wales, were among the Cabinet-ranking ministers asked to take their hats in a long-awaited reshuffle. While most of the outcome of musical chairs was expected, there was one surprise.

Sajid Javid, chancellor of the exchequer and the only erstwhile Remainer in Johnson’s Cabinet, clashed with the prime minister over his ability to nominate his own special advisers. He apparently stormed out of Johnson’s official residence at 10 Downing Street after a heated argument with his boss. Johnson swiftly appointed Rishi Sunak, chief secretary of the treasury, as chancellor of the exchequer.

Cabinet reshuffles are nothing out of the ordinary after an election, so why should we pay closer attention to Javid’s story? There are two reasons, which give us an inkling on how Johnson intends to rule and what to expect from a new budget.

Special advisers — spads in Westminster jargon — have become an important feature in Whitehall because they can be deployed to do a minister’s political bidding above and beyond ministerial policy decisions. Civil servants are restricted to the latter by law. This has created tensions between the mandarins and spads, but has also helped increase a minister’s power and reach.

Javid had fallen out with Cummings in the early days of the pre-election Johnson Cabinet, when Cummings had a top adviser to the chancellor marched off the premises, accusing her of disloyalty.

This gave us a good insight of how Downing Street works. Johnson seems to value loyalty above all. For instance, in the run up to the December election, he had asked every parliamentary candidate of his party to support his position on Brexit. Now that he has such a strong majority, he wants to put his stamp on what happens in his Cabinet. Dissent is not encouraged.

One can argue that Johnson has a point: When Theresa May held the highest office, every Cabinet member seemed to sing from a different hymn sheet, which led to paralysis in the political system. Brexit will be no mean task to accomplish. In light of the recent past, it is understandable that Johnson wants to ensure everyone in his Cabinet marches to the same tune.

Whether we like it or not, he has been given a resounding mandate by the people, and he probably needs to be given the space to accomplish his objectives. If he runs into too many roadblocks, we can take heart that the Westminster machine has sufficient wily operators to assert their power. The Conservative Party is notorious for unseating its leader when it sees fit. Margaret Thatcher and John Major are just two in a long line of examples.

The second reason why the reshuffle at the top of the treasury matters has to do with how the country’s finances are to unfold. Javid insisted on balancing the current budget by 2023. That must have clashed with Johnson’s plans.

The prime minister thinks big. There is a plethora of big projects: HS2 — the high-speed rail link to the north — 40 more hospitals for the National Health Service, and a £20 billion ($26 billion) bridge linking Scotland to Northern Ireland, to name just a few.

Johnson likes to build things, and he will do so. We can argue that it is vital to bring infrastructure and business to cities and towns in the north, many of which have disintegrated into an economic wasteland since Thatcher’s economic reforms.

Johnson managed to gain many northern constituencies in last year’s election. Many who supported the Conservatives at the ballot box up north had fathers and grandfathers who would rather have been dead than vote Conservative. It is now up to Johnson to deliver for those voters. It is also in the interest of the country as a whole to rejuvenate the north.

The only problem is that these projects cost money and their financing is so far unclear. Whether the treasury will raise taxes or borrow more in this low-interest-rate environment is yet to be seen. In Sunak, Johnson picked a man who is close to him, so much so that Sunak stood in for him during electoral debates.

However one looks at the reshuffle, it is clear that Johnson wants to avoid at all costs the cacophony of voices that emanated from May’s Cabinet. In light of Brexit, Downing Street faces a monumental task. Whether we like his methods or not, Johnson achieved a big victory in last year’s election, and he probably now needs to be given the space to govern his way — for the time being at least.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources

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