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Johnson Bolsters Power As Foreign Policy Storm Clouds Gather – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond*

Boris Johnson has postponed his planned trip to see Donald Trump from next week until the summer in the midst of UK-US policy spats ranging from Huawei to digital taxes. With Johnson fighting on several foreign fronts, including Brexit, he is therefore consolidating his power at home after December’s landmark election win.

Indeed, the last week, which saw several big domestic policy announcements, has been the most important in UK politics since mid-December’s Conservative victory. And Johnson may now enjoy greater power today than any of his predecessors as prime minister since at least Margaret Thatcher, with his ambition being to occupy 10 Downing Street for much of the 2020s.

With the largest Tory majority in the House of Commons since Thatcher in the late 1980s, Johnson is likely to now be at the height of his powers. Unlike Tony Blair, for instance, there is no obvious big counterweight to him in government, like a Gordon Brown figure, so he dominates the political scene, for the immediate future at least.

The latest step in Johnson’s consolidation of power came at the end of last week, when he produced a major ministerial reshuffle. This was billed as promoting the next generation of talent. However, it is no coincidence that the Cabinet ministers he sacked, including Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom and Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith, tended to be the ones who showed most independence.

Moreover, the shock departure of Sajid Javid as chancellor came after he refused Johnson’s request to exert more control over him by firing all his special advisers. Javid is replaced as chancellor by another ex-banker, 39-year-old Rishi Sunak, who only entered the House of Commons in 2015 and, just a year ago, was the most junior minister in the Housing, Communities and Local Government Department.

Accompanying the changes in government personnel, the prime minister has begun to map out a multiyear governing agenda, including his “infrastructure revolution” aimed at “leveling up” the economy across England, with the Tories having won in December a significant number of previously longstanding Labour strongholds in the Midlands and North. This agenda includes the construction of a high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham, which could cost more than £100 billion, and ultimately be extended into Northern England.

Sunak’s first budget as chancellor is expected on March 11 and is likely to double down on the theme of the infrastructure revolution, with Johnson proposing the largest increase in day-to-day public spending in this Parliament, compared to the last one, in relative terms of any Tory prime minister since the late 1950s and early 1960s.

At the same time as Johnson is consolidating his power within the government, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has emerged as the early favorite to become the next Labour supremo and leader of the opposition, replacing Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer is seeking to play a “safety first” campaign and has made a series of key pledges to try to win support from the left of the party.

On the economic front, he has proposed increases in income tax for the top 5 percent of earners, reversing the Tory cuts to corporation tax and clamping down on corporate tax avoidance, plus the nationalization of rail, mail, energy, and water. A standout foreign policy measure is his proposed introduction of a “Prevention of Military Intervention Act” to put “human rights at the heart of foreign policy,” while reviewing all UK arms sales to make the nation “a force for international peace and justice.” In terms of devolution from Whitehall, he wants regional investment banks and stronger control over regional industrial strategy. He also favors abolishing the House of Lords and creating an elected chamber of regions and nations.

However, while Starmer is the early favorite, he is by no means guaranteed success in the face of challenges from Corbyn’s preferred successor, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and the “wild card” contender Lisa Nandy, who is the only candidate not in the shadow Cabinet. The election will not be decided until April, meaning that much of Labour’s attention will be focused internally for several weeks to come.

While Johnson consolidates power at home, it is not just the relationship with the US where storm clouds are gathering. Negotiations, for instance, will commence next month on a potential EU-UK trade deal. However, the 10-month period from March to December is not likely to be nearly long enough to agree more than what chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier has called a “bare bones” agreement. Yet few in London or Brussels have so far talked openly about the need for a transition extension, threatening a new Brexit crisis by the summer, at which time the two sides will need to decide if the transition period will be extended into 2021.

This underlines that problems are brewing for the prime minister on the foreign policy front that could yet see his agenda stymied. While he seems politically impregnable for now, his good fortune will not last indefinitely.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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