Two years of Johnson and UK’s biggest question remains
Many people, not just the British, found it hard to imagine what a Boris Johnson premiership would look like. Two years later and many will be giving their interim assessments. Has he lived up to the hype of his fans or to the doom-laden fears of his critics?
The comparisons with Donald Trump are overblown, but in one respect they are both instigators of the unexpected. They abhor the rulebook. It is for others. They enjoy breaking the mold.
All this engendered huge uncertainty as to how the mercurial Johnson was going to run the British ship of state. His charisma, eye for a public relations opportunity and ability to generate soundbites gave an indication as to his style, but the substance was not too detailed. His detractors would claim this is typical; that linguistic acrobatics are no substitute for a detailed, road-tested policy agenda.
A string of crises, not least the pandemic, has kept Johnson from leaving a predetermined mark on his administration. Handling crises does not play to his strengths. He is, by his own admission, anything but a details person in the style of Angela Merkel.
The initial mantra was to “Get Brexit Done.” This was to contrast with his predecessor’s hesitancy and indecision. He did succeed in breaking the deadlock with Brussels. Yet, only months after signing his “oven-ready” deal, Johnson was threatening to rip up the agreement over Northern Ireland.
A delay in the timing of Brexit did not cost him at the polls, as he stormed to an 80-seat majority in December 2019. For Conservatives, ignoring the internal critics wary of his wayward management style, this was why he was elected leader.
Leading Britain out of the EU crowned him the champion of Brexiteers. The cost of this remains considerable. The UK remains bitterly divided, which was both a cause and a symptom of Brexit. A union of four unequal parts is under severe strain, from which it will almost certainly fail to survive intact. About 84 percent of the population is English and it is this shaky English identity that threatens the 400-year-old union.
English voters gave Scotland Brexit and too many Scots prefer the union of Europe to the union of England and Scotland. Johnson has barely reacted to the clamor for independence, reinforcing a historic dislike of the Tories.
Northern Ireland is also a challenge. Like Scotland, it rejected Brexit but finds itself a junior part of the UK as well as out of the EU. The border down the Irish Sea has angered many. What used to be a fantasy of hard-line republicans of a united Ireland no longer seems so far-fetched. As with Scottish independence, Johnson’s Conservatives appear untroubled at this prospect.
Johnson has also unfurled his designs for another mantra, “Global Britain.” Yet what does this mean? Quite in what way Britain was not global pre-Brexit remains a mystery. Few countries have a larger and more dynamic global footprint. Institutions such as the BBC and the British Council have colossal global reach. London is a global financial and cosmopolitan capital.
Britain had also been justifiably proud of being a major global player in international development. The UK was one of the first countries to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid. It was a massive contributor to Syrian aid programs, for example. This was significant soft power. That has been ditched, lowering the target to 0.5 percent of GNI — temporarily, the government argues, owing to pandemicrelated financial constraints. It does not feel very global.
On climate change, Johnson has another global challenge in his sights. He has made it his No. 1 foreign affairs priority and will host the UN climate change summit in November. That is laudable, but his ambitions require the flesh of detail to encourage confidence.
Certainly the pandemic has been global. Britain’s initial response was lackluster, with the Johnson government toying with herd immunity, only to carry out the first of many U-turns and go into lockdown.
The government’s record is decidedly mixed. It was unprepared for the pandemic, lacking much of the necessary protective equipment. Its test and trace system has been a colossal and costly failure. Britain has one of the highest death rates in the world, with 128,000 having succumbed to the virus so far. Even now the public messaging over the virus is confused and lacks clarity.
Johnson the gambler is much in evidence. He recklessly pledged to have a normal Christmas as the second wave hit Britain, only to reimpose restrictions. The country on Monday lifted nearly all restrictions, in what was billed, rather cheaply, as “freedom day.” This went ahead as cases hit a jaw-dropping 54,000 a day.
On the credit side, the vaccine rollout has been impressive, with more than 69 percent of the adult population having received at least one dose. Yet, internationally, Britain is as guilty as any rich power of hoarding vaccines and failing to exert every effort to push inoculations globally.
Looking ahead, much will depend not only on the outcome of the pandemic but also how Johnson addresses the threat of a UK breakup. Will he be the leader with the imagination to push forward bold plans to keep the union together? A rump England and perhaps Wales will be no vehicle for his international goals. His ambitions may be global, but he still needs to sort the local out first.