“Yes, I am invincible!”
So boasts Boris, a Russian computer technician in the Goldeneye Bond film, as his fiendish plans start to work out.
In his acceptance speech for leadership of the Conservative Party, new UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson certainly wasn’t claiming indestructability. But he was distinctly upbeat about his chances of resolving the Brexit conundrum.
None of the assembled pundits and commentators believes him, though. The consensus view is that ‘BoJo’ won’t be in No.10 Downing Street for very long.
Yet what if the consensus, as usual, turns out to be wrong…?
The old school tie
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they are the same) is a well-known quote by the 19th century French critic, journalist and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.
It could easily apply to the UK’s premiers.
Almost 300 years ago, Robert Walpole became the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. He went to school at Eton College.
In 2019, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has maintained that tradition by becoming the 21st Old Etonian-educated UK Prime Minister.
In that sense, so much for British politics moving in line with our multi-cultural and socially-inclusive, etc., etc., times!
To be fair to Boris, though, he’s always given the impression of not taking himself too seriously. I reckon that acceptance speech contained more self-deprecating jokes within just a few minutes that all his recent predecessors made in their entire careers in the job. And behind that facade, he’s clearly trying to move on from Theresa May’s overtly defensive and vituperative methodology.
Yet we all know the many problems that the ‘new’ Tory administration is facing over Brexit. Parliamentary clashes, EU intransigence, the backstop… the list goes on.
And the House of Commons’ arithmetic isn’t in his favour. Examination of the maths reveals that last week 17 Tory MPs rebelling against the party whip, while an estimated 19 abstained in order to stop the new PM from proroguing parliament to force through a no-deal outcome.
As Samuel Tombs at Pantheon Macroeconomics points out, Mr. Johnson could try to encourage local Conservative party associations to de-select their Remain-leaning MPs and then hold an election with new candidates.
“But this process would take several months to play out, and might backfire if Remainer MPs with loyal local followings manage to cling on as independent candidates or split the vote, enabling other parties to win those seats instead.”
“We think Mr. Johnson won’t seek an election this year, or attempt a no-deal Brexit and run the risk of Remainer Tory MPs calling a confidence vote, even if that means abandoning his pledge to leave the EU by October 31. If an election happens soon, it more likely will be in a scenario in which Mr. Johnson doesn’t want one.”
321 out of 638 actively voting MPs are currently voting for the government. On 1 August the latter number will increase to 639 following the by-election at the presently-vacant seat of Brecon and Radnorshire. The Liberal Democrats are favourites to win this. Two more Tory seat losses would then leave the government vulnerable to losing a no confidence vote.
That’s very likely to happen over the next couple of years, making a general election during that timeframe probable.
In short, then, overall ‘expert’ expectations are low that the latest incumbent of No.10 will either succeed in sorting Brexit or even stay around for long.
Starting from such a low base, though, is far preferable to an environment in which everyone is anticipating great successes. That generally leads to disappointment.
What’s more, the latest US financial news couldn’t be more encouraging for BoJo in his attempt to defy mainstream opinion.
Here’s The Wall Street Journal:
“Congressional and White House negotiators reached a deal to increase federal spending and raise the government’s borrowing limit, securing a bipartisan compromise to avoid a looming fiscal crisis and pushing the next budget debate past the 2020 election.”
“The deal for more than $2.7 trillion in spending over two years… would suspend the debt ceiling until the end of July 2021. It also raises spending by nearly $50 billion next fiscal year above current levels.”
I’m not focusing on the exact numbers. They’re far too large for me to grasp.
Yet the message is clear.
Big state (over)spending is OK again. Austerity is finished (not that it ever really started in America).
As US Senate leader Mitch McConnell is reported to have told President Trump last month, no politician has ever lost an election by spending more money.
Over here in Britain, that won’t be lost on Boris Johnson.
Outgoing Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond has been keeping a tight hold on outflows from the UK government’s coffers.
But ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ has been replaced as Chancellor in the new cabinet by former home Secretary Sajid Javid. He may be an ardent admirer of Margaret Thatcher – according to the BBC, he has a portrait of the ‘Iron Lady’ in his office – but I bet he’ll be prepared to loosen the fiscal reins to a considerable degree.
For example, he’s already talked about creating a £100bn national infrastructure fund as well as investing heavily in house building. In addition, tax cuts appear to be firmly on the new leadership’s agenda.
To be clear, a mind-set of caring far more about the next election than the next generation isn’t exactly responsible long-term planning. But with politicians with limited time horizons, that won’t stop it happening.
So as and when the next general election materialises, the Tories will try to spend their way to what currently looks like an unlikely victory.
And if Old Etonian Boris can defy consensus expectations and actually ‘deliver’ Brexit – even if the 31 October deadline is breached – his status will rise to national hero. At least until all the debt bills arrive in the post…