Boris Johnson shows he cares more about winning than governing
The PM is defiantly short-termist — victory first and worry about the aftermath later
As in rugby, so in elections. Boris Johnson will do what it takes © Stefan Rousseau/PA
If one image captures Boris Johnson’s approach to life, and politics, it is the scene of him playing street rugby with schoolchildren in Japan in 2015. The now-prime minister flattens a 10-year-old-boy who stands between him and the line. Only afterwards does he regain his affable mien and worry about the boy mown down by the Boggernaut. However trivial the contest, the PM is serious about winning.
As in rugby, so in elections. Mr Johnson will do what it takes. He will curb his exuberance, put himself in the hands of his strategists and say what has to be said. But this pays little heed to the price of his promises. His seriousness about winning is unmatched by a gravitas about governing.
This ruthlessness is seen in his approach to Remain-minded seats. Like the officer class through the ages, Mr Johnson has shown himself ready to sacrifice a few troops to a Liberal Democrat surge in the south as the price of securing Labour Leavers in the north. While Labour has tried to face both ways on Brexit, the Tories have offered no concessions to liberal Remainers. Later, he will raise a glass to gallant colleagues who fell in the southern campaign but you can’t make an omelette without a beating in Richmond Park.
The same single-mindedness applies to commitments, some of which, while shrewd in electoral calculation, will present the country with unpleasant consequences. The most obvious example is Brexit. Needing to neutralise Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, Mr Johnson made pledges no prudent leader would make.
The resulting promise not to extend the negotiating period for an EU trade agreement beyond 2020, makes any deal he strikes likely to be a disadvantageous one. Less than a year is long enough only if he strikes the thinnest of agreements, covering only tariffs and quotas and accedes to EU demands. To meet his deadline he may be forced to agree fishing access to UK waters and there will be little or nothing on services. Mr Johnson’s vague desire to break free of EU regulations and standards will further limit market access.
The alleged prize for this loss of access is a trade deal with the US. Mr Johnson has pledged to keep the National Health Service off the table, but this may be the limit of his resolve. The weakening of regulatory standards necessary to facilitate such a deal will again come at a price in terms of European market access.
Realists in the cabinet want to focus first on the EU; the Brexit ideologues are looking to America. Should Mr Johnson win the election, this will become a central dilemma. If, by dint of boxing himself in on negotiations, he secures only the barest EU deal, he will not only have weakened the British economy but left himself more exposed to the demands of the US. This is the price of ruling out any extension.
For a sense of how this plays out, one need look only at the Brexit divorce deal. Mr Johnson is quick to jab his finger at the “gloomsters” who said he could not strike a new withdrawal deal in three months. But the price of his agreement was caving in on terms he once described as unacceptable. Any fool can strike a bad deal. Yet, again, Mr Johnson would return to Downing Street having failed to learn the lesson from the first stage of talks that the person fighting the clock is the one who loses.
In other areas, a safety-first approach is storing up different risks. Internalising the lesson of Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 election campaign, Mr Johnson is taking no chances with bold initiatives. He has ruled out any rises in VAT, income tax or National Insurance. The calculation is obvious but it is very short-termist for a government promising higher spending to rule out large areas of revenue. On reform of social care - the policy that sank Mrs May - we remain in the dark. Calls for longer jail sentences were promised, even before Friday’s London Bridge terror attack. Details and costings to follow.
Even so, Tory strategists say this is a “change election”. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has an expansive - and expensive - vision of nationalisation, higher taxes, rapid decarbonisation and what he rather sinisterly refers to as the “democratisation” of business. Labour is not above crude electioneering and some of its plans boast some fairly large holes; but there is no doubt the leadership has thought through the direction of travel.
Johnsonian politics is defiantly short-termist. Win first; worry about the aftermath later. Whatever change this change election brings is yet to be carefully worked through. If today’s decision deepens tomorrow’s predicament, it remains a problem for tomorrow.
The price of power must always be paid. Is any price too high? We may be about to find out.
Robert Shrimsley is a columnist with the Financial Times