By Arab News
By Cornelia Meyer*
Boris Johnson’s first year as UK prime minister has been split into two phases; first, a minority government propped up by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, and then an administration with an 80-seat majority thanks to a landslide victory in the December election.
Johnson’s leadership style can be characterized as bold, uncompromising, unconventional, never lacking optimism and always exuding a certain roguish charm. He does not do detail, which is why he keeps his adviser / enforcer Dominic Cummings close, and has selected cabinet members such as former Goldman Sachs investment banker Rishi Sunak and lawyer Dominic Raab.
Throughout his career Johnson has been comfortable with controversy, never more obviously than when he took office last July. Leaders of a minority government tend to be emollient and malleable to gain support from all quarters. Not so Johnson; he dealt fearlessly with his own MPs who opposed his Brexit strategy, ruthlessly threw them out of the Conservative party and suspended Parliament, an act later ruled unlawful.
Calling an election in December took courage, and it paid off. The Conservatives won support in northern English constituencies hollowed out by decades of neglect and a decade of austerity. For generations it would have been unthinkable for this “Red Wall” of Labour seats to return Tories to Westminster, but in 2019 they did.
In COVID-19 the UK has faced its biggest enemy since the Second World War. With 673 pandemic deaths per million population, the UK is the second-worst affected country in the world, behind only Belgium. There was criticism that the government acted too slowly. In an interview last week with BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, Johnson admitted that politicians and their advisers knew too little about the virus at the onset. He avoided further scrutiny by saying the best way to honor the dead was to ensure the country was prepared for a second wave and was in a position to deal with the economic fallout.
Johnson’s government is spending £370 billion on measures to combat the economic consequences of the pandemic, including workers’ furlough payments and loans to businesses. The programs are generous but costly, bringing this year’s expenditure to 19 percent of GDP (the highest since 1945) and the total government debt-to-GDP ratio to 99.6 percent, a number last seen in the 1960s. This is in stark contrast to David Cameron’s response to the 2008-09 financial crisis, which was stringent austerity. Nevertheless, these are extraordinary times and they demand extraordinary actions.
In his BBC interview Johnson said he had achieved his election goals, which were to deliver Brexit, unite the Conservative party and the country, and defeat Jeremy Corbyn, then the Labour party leader.
He will get there on Brexit by Dec. 31, with or without a trade deal, because the UK’s departure is enshrined in law. What that means for the post-COVID-19 economy remains to be seen, particularly as trade relations with China are bound to be rockier after the exclusion of Huawei from Britain’s 5G network infrastructure and the continuing spat over Hong Kong.
Johnson has certainly unified his party, and many in England are glad to have left behind the dysfunction of Westminster under Theresa May — but there may be less satisfaction in the other constituent parts of the UK. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is relentless in demanding a second referendum on Scottish independence. In 2014 Scots voted 55-45 to remain in the UK, but they also voted 62-38 in 2016 to stay in the EU, and remain overwhelmingly pro-European. Johnson will use every tool at his disposal to avoid another independence referendum, and his finance minister Rishi Sunak will support Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in a bid to win them over.
In Westminster, too, matters have become more difficult. With Corbyn gone, Johnson now faces the competent Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader. In recent opinion polls Starmer has a 37 percent approval rating, Johnson 35 percent.
The prime minister sounded upbeat and full of verve in his BBC interview. His popularity has undoubtedly suffered from perceptions of his handling of the pandemic, but Boris Johnson is a master of reinventing himself and winning elections when it matters; he proved that as an MP, as mayor of London, during the Brexit referendum, and at the last general election. Whatever you think about the man, only a fool would underestimate him.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources