Matthew Elliott, Senior Political Adviser and Dr Clive Black, Head of Research
In Westminster, there are two dates on people’s lips: Monday 21st June, when the Covid restrictions are set to be fully lifted, and Thursday 22nd July, the date the House of Commons rises for the summer recess. Like the rest of the country, everybody in Westminster is exhausted and looking forward to their summer break. Or should I say, ‘almost everybody’, because the Prime Minister clearly has a spring in his step. For someone who has squeezed an extended premiership’s worth of activity into less than two years – negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement and winning the election in 2019, Getting Brexit Done and fighting Covid in 2020, administering the vaccine and carefully lifting the restrictions in 2021, not to forget getting engaged, contracting Covid and having a baby – Boris Johnson appears to have the vim of someone on their first day in office. Why?
1. A renewed mandate
When the Conservative Party won their 80-seat majority in 2019, even the naysayers had to give Boris Johnson some credit for delivering their first strong majority for over 30 years – made even more significant by coming on the back of two other Conservative Prime Ministers. But that did not stop some saying that it was an endorsement of Brexit, not the Conservative Party, and a rejection of Jeremy Corbyn, not unqualified support for the PM; the latter being certainly true at the time. The results on ‘Super Thursday’, on 6th May 2021, put paid to that, noting that Jeremy was nowhere to be seen, although Diane Abbott was.
Whilst many incumbents suffer in the midterms, Boris Johnson has come out stronger, with a renewed and strengthened mandate, most notably in the Midlands and the north of England, although he would do well to address the ‘Blue Fade’ in the South. Despite last summer some commentators openly asking when he would leave No10, voters came back with a resounding ‘not anytime soon’. The stage is now set for him to become as synonymous with the 2020s as Margaret Thatcher was with the 1980s. He has a renewed mandate to mould the country to his vision, and the time to do so.
2. A legislative agenda
With the Government’s bandwidth taken up by Brexit in 2019 (frankly 2016-2019) and Covid from early 2020 to date, there has been very little domestic legislation in that period (although some in industry will point out that this has been a blessing in many respects, with the regulatory burden likely to be lighter than it would ordinarily have been – something current legislators would do well to remember as appropriate deregulation and simplification should be priorities for a business-friendly state).
The Queen’s Speech on the 11th May began the process of fleshing out the specifics of what is meant by ‘levelling up’ and ‘Build Back Better’ – the concepts that define the Prime Minister’s domestic vision for the country but which, to date, have lacked clarity. Brexit was not an end in itself – far from it: it was an event in a major process that should lead us to achieve things that membership of the EU precluded. So, with the morass of the pandemic coming to an end, the Government is now able to exercise some of these freedoms (such as running our own vaccine programme). Equally, Brexit was not the PM’s defining interest as a politician. He is now able to begin implementing his vision for the country, backed up by his triple mandate (2016, 2019 and 2021) but requiring detail that Neil O’Brien, his new levelling-up guru, will bring to the table.
3. A stymied Opposition
The strength of the Labour Party in recent decades – the secret formula behind Tony Blair’s three-figure majorities – was being able to combine their traditional blue-collar support with metropolitan liberal support. To somewhat oversimplify things, Tony Blair was able to appeal to both the middle-class public and private sector electorate and retain the working-class manual workers. But that was before Brexit came along, and a Conservative Party demonstrably committed to the NHS. When Labour’s Red Wall supporters saw Keir Starmer do everything in his power to derail Brexit, including the farcical People’s Vote campaign, they switched to Boris Johnson in 2019 to Get Brexit Done. And to a lesser but still significant extent, when doctors and nurses saw the additional funding committed to the NHS, they went from being overwhelmingly Labour voters to being more equally divided. This illustrates how ‘Brexity Hezza’ – how Boris Johnson pitched himself in private in the run up to the leadership election, likening himself to a Brexit-supporting version of Michael Heseltine – has stymied Labour. Their London-centric identity politics leadership has lost touch with their Red Wall base.
4. A postponed referendum
Expectation management accounts for a lot in politics, and the bar for a second independence referendum was well set ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections: if the SNP achieved an overall majority, they would be unstoppable; but were there to be another minority administration, Boris Johnson would be entirely within his rights to ignore calls for a second referendum. As things turned out, Nicola Sturgeon missed out on enjoying an overall majority by one seat, and the vote for pro-unionist parties outstripped that of the nationalist SNP and Greens. The Government has responded well, by focusing on how the devolved assemblies can work more closely with Westminster and looking at UK-wide projects and schemes to reinforce the Union. Try as she might, Nicola Sturgeon will not be able to shift this narrative. She lost the expectation management game.
Where things are more problematic are in Northern Ireland, where Edwin Poots has just taken over from Arlene Foster as leader of the DUP and possibly, very soon, First Minister. With delicate negotiations coming up about the Northern Ireland Protocol – a key element of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – David Frost, who is still responsible for EU-UK relations, will find the UK dimension trickier. The next elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, in May 2022, could be explosive for the Union. Loyalists feel disenfranchised and agitated and only the Irish Government seems to be smelling the brewing coffee. Brussels, Dublin, London and Washington DC would do well to engage with them, and Boris Johnson should be a bridge-builder and statesman on this delicate issue that could also prove to be defining if he gets it wrong.
5. A growing economy
At the height of the pandemic last year, it was impossible to predict the level of economic damage that would occur thanks to Covid. Some predicted that the economic crisis would trigger another global financial crisis. Others forecast unemployment rates not seen since the 1980s. These were not unreasonable projections of what might happen. But thanks to swift action from central banks across the world, and unprecedented levels of peacetime intervention by governments, the worst forecasts were avoided.
What’s more, the economic news coming in now from the UK is extremely good; the Governor of the Bank of England now expects pre-Covid levels of economic activity before this coming Christmas. The immediate and concentrated focus by pharmaceutical companies and universities across the world to develop vaccines has allowed economies to open up far sooner than many feared. The US economy has been given a huge boost with President Biden’s stimulus package, which will have positive spill-over effects for the global economy. And the latest forecasts for the UK economy suggest a faster rebound and a stronger recovery in tax receipts than had previously been expected, which is a demonstratable economic and political boon to the Chancellor and a major headache for Starmer and Sturgeon. Perhaps we will have a repeat of the ‘Booming 20s’ after all; it is sad to say, but it looks like the anti-Brexit media will still be disappointed by such economic progress.
Thinking back to last summer, Westminster was awash with talk that Boris Johnson would be stepping down as Prime Minister. Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law, Sir Humphry Wakefield, even told a visitor to his castle in Northumberland that the PM was planning to quit by the end of the year due to his health. “If you put a horse back to work when it’s injured it will never recover,” The Times reported him as saying. No10 dismissed the report as “total nonsense”. Fast-forward 10 months, people are now speculating that Boris Johnson will seek to beat Margaret Thatcher’s longevity in office. Westminster opinion is notoriously fickle. Nonetheless, the PM’s fortunes are rising high. He has shown himself to be a fighter not a quitter and, even more importantly, a winner.
Now in calmer waters, it is to be hoped that the Prime Minister has learnt the difficult and deadly lessons that have emerged already from the near-impossible early days of the pandemic, so that Britain can build back fairer, greener, with a more truly global perspective, rather than as an apologist for our culture and traditions. This is the key factor behind the Conservatives’ current popularity, and why our country’s quite anti-British intelligentsia has lost election after election since 2016.
Matthew Elliott tweets @matthew_elliott.