The United Kingdom has endured a year with Boris Johnson as prime minister. Though he has headed several laudable initiatives, Johnson’s leadership is, on the whole, shambolic.
The leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party cannot be blamed for the advent of COVID-19, which he and 299,000 other Britons have contracted. Indeed, his government can be credited with a number of bold initiatives, such as 80 percent support for furloughed employees; a major public health campaign against obesity; and new moves to combat climate change. Yet he is guilty of boastful rhetoric, mixed messaging, poor policy execution, and broken promises. He has suffered a sharp decline in popularity. Many who helped him to an 80-strong majority in the House of Commons last December now feel abandoned and betrayed. The union is in jeopardy, with Scotland and Northern Ireland particularly at risk. The Conservative government avoids mainstream media interviews, preferring glib sound bites and photo opportunities.
It is just six months since Britain finally achieved a Brexit deal to leave the European Union, with Johnson proclaiming the UK to be the “Superman of global trade.” He promised a swift, ground-breaking free trade deal with the United States. At a meeting in New York, President Donald Trump promised “a magnificent trade deal,” and told a United Nations climate change summit, “We stand ready to complete an exceptional new trade agreement with the UK that will benefit both our countries.”
After several rounds of talks culminating in a meeting in London this week, there is agreement that no deal is possible before November’s US presidential election. Negotiations have been fraught. First is Trump’s insistence that the US should have access to the huge market created by the UK National Health Service (NHS). Johnson insists that the NHS is sacrosanct, but US companies already have effective control over the UK’s biggest pharmaceutical retailers, Boots and Lloyds Pharmacy.
Food imports and food standards are another bone of contention. Leaked government documents suggest that International Trade Secretary Liz Truss has said the UK would be flexible on food standards, despite pledges given by Johnson to maintain them. Truss later denied this claim. 11 months ago, Truss told Trade Minister Simon Birmingham there would be a UK-Australia deal in “months, not years.” Truss has finally published Britain’s objectives for the proposed treaty, suggesting it will be an “exemplar” for treaties to follow. We shall see.
Much more seriously, the Political Declaration that Johnson signed last October as part of the Withdrawal Agreement seems set to be broken. Parliament firmly mandated against a “no-deal” Brexit, and Johnson insisted that he wanted a new trade deal with Brussels to be at the heart of a post-Brexit relationship with the European Union. Negotiations towards a free trade agreement (FTA) began after Britain entered an 11-month transitional period on February 1, continuing by video link through the peak of the coronavirus lockdown. Almost no progress has been made. Johnson has shown little interest in the talks but has twice flatly refused a request by the EU to extend the transitional period beyond December 31 to allow time for complex matters to be resolved. He has reneged on some of the detailed clauses in the Political Declaration, and recently ordered ministers to prepare for a “no-deal” scenario.
This action prompted more than 100 UK company chiefs, entrepreneurs, and business group leaders to write to Johnson saying it would be “hugely damaging” to the economy if Britain were to leave the European Single Market and customs union without a deal. It would exacerbate Britain’s rapidly rising unemployment and contribute to a 25 percent slowdown in the economy.
Now that they have resolved how to run their €750 billion- recovery fund, the EU’s 27 leaders may give the FTA with Britain more priority. The EU’s chief negotiator has signalled a willingness to be flexible on standards to provide a level playing field for businesses, fisheries, and financial services. So far there is little sign of compromise from London.
Another broken pledge by Johnson could have unforeseen consequences. The prime minister told last October’s Tory party conference, “We will under no circumstances have checks at or near the border in Northern Ireland.” Last week, the government published protocols for customs checks on goods passing between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK from January 1, 2021, aimed at allowing relations between the North and the Republic of Ireland to continue as before. In the long run, this may increase pressure for a united Ireland.
Currently, the biggest threat to the United Kingdom is the prospect of Scottish independence. Last week Johnson flew to Scotland after being advised that First Minister and Scottish Nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon was “acing” him. A Financial Times editorial claimed Sturgeon’s clear communication skills had “turbocharged her approval ratings compared with the bumbling Mr Johnson.” For the first time, opinion polls show that most Scots favour an end to the union with England and that the Scottish National Party is heading for an increased majority at next May’s Scottish elections. If that is the case, demands for another Scottish independence referendum will be hard for Johnson to deny.
When COVID-19 struck, the Conservative Party was 25 percent ahead of Labour in opinion polls. Mishandling of the coronavirus has reduced Johnson’s poll lead has reduced to zero. He retains a parliamentary majority of 80, but it will be several years before he has to face voters.
British people are angry that tens of millions of people were allowed to fly into Britain during the height of the coronavirus without even a temperature test. Front line clinicians, nurses, and carers were denied personal protective equipment for weeks. Government messaging continues to be confusing, testing has been haphazard and slow, tracing is almost non-existent, and jobs are vanishing fast.
In foreign affairs, the biggest indictment of Johnson – apart from his failures to agree to trade deals – is his refusal to publish a parliamentary report on Russian influence in British politics. He was finally compelled to publish nine months after the election. The report accused Johnson and ministers of ignoring alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, concluding Britain was one of the Kremlin’s top intelligence targets. Despite such accusations, he has refused to order a full inquiry by the intelligence services.
In a BBC interview Johnson, under pressure, admitted that mistakes had been made in the early stages of the coronavirus, but appeared to lay the blame on the scientific advice. Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate, director of the Francis Crick Institute, and a chief scientific adviser to the European Commission, accused the government of a lack of transparency, saying, “decisions are too often shrouded in secrecy; they need to be challenged” to keep the trust of the public.
There is considerable unease at the omnipresent and ominous role of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, at the heart of government. Cummings, a political appointee paid by the taxpayer, is credited with forcing the recent resignation and pay off of the country’s top official, Sir Mark Sedwill, who said his relationship with 10 Downing Street was no longer tenable. Cummings flagrantly broke the government’s lockdown rules at the height of the pandemic, but Johnson refused to sack him, despite demands from MPs of both main parties. Frequent breaches of social distancing rules, such as in Brighton a few days ago (see picture), are blamed on public anger that there is one law for the people and another for Cummings.
There has also been strong criticism of Johnson’s decision last week to increase the number of peers in the unelected House of Lords to 830. After 130 peers failed to make a single contribution to any Lords debate, the Theresa May government pledged to whittle down the numbers, and Norman Fowler, the Conservative Lords Speaker, ridiculed Johnson’s decision.
Some of those ennobled were strong supporters of Johnson in the Brexit campaign. Notable new peers include May’s husband, Philip, for undefined “political services,” Evgeny Lebedev, the billionaire Russian owner of the giveaway London Evening Standard as well as the tabloid’s former editor, Veronica Wadley. This came just a week after a Commons security committee published a report about the growth of Russian influence in UK politics.
Ian Hislop, the long-standing editor of Private Eye, recently attracted the ire of Johnson by naming his government the most incompetent he could remember. In the last year, Johnson has parroted slogans from ancient Rome, emulated Winston Churchill, and compared himself to Franklin D Roosevelt and his New Deal. But I cannot recall a political leader worse than Johnson since the end of WWII. Australians who see Johnson as a charismatic and dynamic world leader transforming his country into “Global Britain” will need convincing.
Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.
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