Boris Johnson prefers wordplay to policy detail. That will be a problem going forward. No amount of verbosity can mask the complex, often clashing set of socio-economic needs and interests that need to be reconciled to make effective policy in a deeply divided Britain. The four tasks that will define Mr Johnson’s government are minimising the economic and health fallout of the pandemic; making good on the promises of Brexit; putting the country on the path to net zero greenhouse gas emissions; and fixing a Britain broken since the global financial crisis. No one would would oppose the ends, it is the means that matters.
Mr Johnson’s response has been, mostly, to launder his reputation in either green soapsuds, the warm waters of “levelling up” or the steamy fug of new technology. Last year, he claimed that by 2030 Britons would fly in zero-carbon jets and be transported by hydrogen-powered trains through a land of plentiful housing. The most substantial policy to come out of the pandemic so far is to reward failure. Ministers – who have made a hash of lockdown timings, test and trace, and the procurement of personal protective equipment – aim to seize back control of the NHS, which has successfully managed the crisis and the vaccine rollout.
In environment, the prime minister has produced policies that are pale shadows of their rhetoric. Last week, it emerged that hundreds of millions of pounds were withdrawn from the government’s green homes grant programme – undermining its flagship scheme for a green recovery. There is a well-founded suspicion that Mr Johnson has caved to lobbying from corporate party donors. The prime minister’s pledge to ban gas boilers from new homes by 2023 – which would have imposed costs on developers – was first made, then withdrawn and finally replaced with a later date. His promise last year to scrap taxpayer support for fossil fuel projects overseas would not have pleased big oil. Perhaps that is why we have yet to see the end of British interest in 17 such endeavours, including a major Brazilian offshore oil scheme that will contribute the same emissions as 800,000 cars annually.
The prime minister owes his position to Brexit, but this was a campaign, not a way of governing. It was remarkably successful in permitting Mr Johnson to pose as a breaker of taboos that he, as a Thatcherite Tory, had worked hard to construct, without having to specify in detail the boundaries of – and therefore his accountability in – a new policy regime. Brexit had its roots in an economic model based on spatial and income inequality, despite aligning with a conflict over values. Leaving the EU was a signal, its supporters were told, that international economic policy would be subordinated to more equitable domestic priorities. Yet, as Labour’s Lisa Nandy spotted in last year’s budget documents, Mr Johnson plans to “level up” the red wall with a model that has failed communities for the past 40 years.
After decades of failure by pro-market reforms, the only way for a Tory government to create a low-tax, low-regulation state seems to be under the cover of another project – Brexit – and by parachuting ideological soulmates into positions of power. It is why the OECD should not be led by the Australian rightwinger Mathias Cormann, whose pro-coal ideological vandalism led to the removal of the country’s carbon emissions trading scheme. Britain faces an unequal recovery from the pandemic in the coming months, with the rich and old out consuming, while unemployment rises and the young are left to struggle with higher debt. When he was just a follower of a doctrine, Mr Johnson could claim that if things went badly he or his creed weren’t entirely responsible. But he posed as a leader with a new gospel. The prime minister should not be surprised if the public, sooner or later, judges him wanting and abandons his temple for another church.