What's Next for Britain?
It is unwise to bet against Boris Johnson. The British prime minister’s clownish manner, careless habits, and chaotic private life disguise razor-sharp political instincts. His path to power is strewn with the corpses of his political enemies—inside the Conservative Party, and now the Liberal Democrat and Labour leaders. The opposition parties were humiliated by his election triumph this week, a victory that means Brexit will now happen. It was not inevitable. Only this summer the practical and political obstacles to leaving the European Union soon, or indeed ever, seemed almost insuperable. Johnson, against many confident predictions, including mine, overcame those hurdles.
Difficulties do remain. The European Union will drive a hard bargain on its future economic relationship with Britain. The much-touted free trade agreements with the rest of the world will be elusive and unrewarding. The U.S. administration under Donald Trump is not an ideal ally. A constitutional showdown with Scotland looms. It is also hard to see how Brexit will make it easier to deal with Russia and China. Those countries exploit just the sort of divisions and disagreements that Brexit will foster. At the start of the election campaign, Johnson blocked the publication of a parliamentary report on Russian subversion. People like me fumed. It clearly did him no harm.
The prime minister’s thumping electoral victory means he faces no serious parliamentary obstacle to getting his Brexit withdrawal deal into law. More importantly, he is no longer vulnerable to pressure from the extreme fringes of his party when it comes to the details of what happens after we leave on January 31st. That freedom will allow him, if he wants, to accept a quick deal with the EU, even if it is not particularly favorable to some bits of British industry. The public cares little for the technicalities of customs unions and rule books. Their main interest was in seeing the referendum result honored. It will be. Leaving the EU may hurt this country’s long-term growth prospects. But in the short-term, the ending of uncertainty will mean a useful bounce in investment and output. Johnson’s government will take the credit for that too.
For the first time in four years, other countries will be dealing with a stable British government. It will last five years, and could well win the next election for another term after that. That will be a welcome change. Britain’s battered standing in the world will start to recover in 2020. Foreign and defense ministers from allied countries should be booking their tickets for London soon.
One thing to watch for will be the strategic defense review, probably in the summer. Britain’s armed forces are grossly overstretched. We have to make choices: are we going to concentrate on being a global power that helps the U.S. in overseas operations, or on bolstering European defenses? If we try to do both, we will do them badly.
But the big question is Johnson’s personality. Will he settle down and run the country properly? Or will he be distracted by a Trumpian fondness for the limelight? His record as Mayor of London, and as Foreign Secretary, is, to put it mildly, patchy. He won the election not on the basis of a record of achievement in office, but on being less bad than the alternatives. That is a shaky foundation for five years of government. But it is not an impossible one. Johnson does make a lot of mistakes, and that makes it tempting to bet against him. As his defeated rivals and opponents—and pundits like me—can tell you, that is unwise.
December 16, 2019