Boris must hope luck will hold as hard work begins

Boris Johnson altered the landscape of British politics on Thursday night, ending a debilitating parliamentary gridlock and three years of uncertainty over Brexit.

Boris must hope luck will hold as hard work begins

Boris Johnson altered the landscape of British politics on Thursday night, ending a debilitating parliamentary gridlock and three years of uncertainty over Brexit.

In doing so, the UK prime minister gave himself what his predecessor, Theresa May, never could: the political space to define his country’s departure from the European Union and address the social and economic frustrations that led to the 2016 Brexit vote.

In an election where constituency swings of as little as 5% could make a big difference, the movements went the way of Johnson’s Conservatives.

Long-held Labour seats in its former industrial heartlands, such as Workington, in the northwest, and Blyth Valley, in the north-east, switched to the Tories — some for the first time in 70 years.

Jo Swinson, leader of the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats, lost her seat.

It was the Tories’ fourth consecutive election victory, but its most decisive, handing Labour its worst drubbing since 1935.

If the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn’s time is up, Johnson’s hour has come.

While the consequences of his victory on two fronts — Brexit and domestic policy — are hard to overstate, so are the challenges.

In getting this election, Johnson found a trap door out of a parliamentary cage on Brexit, but he had to write a series of blank cheques that will be hard to honour.

Three advantages swept Johnson back to Downing St, and each will probably be short-lived.

The first was, obviously, Brexit.

Almost as soon as Johnson became party leader, he set about uniting the Brexit vote, squeezing Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party until it ended up with no seats, and successfully targeting the English Labour seats that voted ‘Leave’ and which were deeply uncomfortable with Corbyn’s brand of metropolitan socialism.

Even if Johnson couldn’t honour his pledge to “die in a ditch,” rather than extend the October 31 Brexit deadline, voters gave him the benefit of the doubt. Nothing similar happened on the ‘Remain’ side.

The deal Johnson struck with Brussels provides for a so-called hard Brexit; it represents a stark rupture from the obligations and access that EU membership offers.

It was held up as a Houdini-like piece of statecraft, although, in truth, its terms were ones the EU had always been willing to give, but which May, Johnson, and other Brexiters saw as unacceptable.

It is only slightly less economically damaging than leaving without a deal, but, crucially, gives Britain the freedom to negotiate its own trade deals, which was totemic for Brexiters.

Having a deal allowed Johnson to win over most Brexit voters and many ‘Remain’ voters, too. The campaign slogan, ‘get Brexit done’, appealed to both.

Hardline Brexiteers saw it as a promise nearly fulfilled, while weary ‘remainers’ just wanted to ensure a no-deal Brexit was avoided and that the country could move on.

The second boon for Johnson was Corbyn. No politician could be luckier in his enemies than Johnson was.

From his failure to tackle anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, to his baffling Brexit policy, and an economic agenda that even left-wing voters found loopy, Corbyn proved himself unfit for office.

Finally, largely through his personal charisma, hardened tack on Brexit, and promises to end the austerity of his Tory predecessors, Johnson came to be seen as the candidate of change.

The Conservatives have been in government for nearly a decade — a time in which Britain has had deep spending cuts, rising rates of violent crime and homelessness, a crisis in affordable housing, wage stagnation, and, more recently, below trend growth rates.

But Johnson managed to run as a first-term leader.

None of these three advantages will endure.

After the imminent passage of his Brexit deal legislation, allowing the UK to leave officially by January 31, Johnson has to conclude a trade agreement with the EU, which he swore would be finished by the end of 2020.

In that time-span, Brussels is unlikely to offer much, unless Johnson agrees to Britain not diverging in key regulatory areas.

Perhaps voters, and the media, will be so tired of Brexit — and so pleased that the formal break has been delivered — that his concessions won’t attract notice.

More likely, the terms of a trade deal, or an extension, will be contentious.

Johnson won’t have Corbyn to make him look good, either. Of course, the next leader may be as bad as the last one.

If Labour doesn’t abandon Corbynism — a highly ideological platform of soaking the rich, nationalising industries, and reckless fiscal promises — it will remain a soft target for Johnson.

Finally, the longer Johnson spends in No 10, the harder it will be to portray himself as the face of change.

To be as successful in office as he’s been in winning it, he’ll have to knit together a set of economic policies that reflects the new Tory coalition, spanning socially conservative, working class areas that are desperate for investment and the Tories’ traditional ‘small state’ and urban supporters.

Johnson’s acceptance speech, in the early hours of Friday, spoke of “one-nation conservatism” and his plans to go beyond Brexit.

But the Scottish National Party’s impressive performance suggests even keeping the UK together will be a challenge.

Johnson’s answer may be to throw money at all problems. That could backfire.

May dreamed of uniting her party, broadening its base, and winning an election by a wide margin.

Johnson did it.

Now, he just has to govern.

Bloomberg

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