What the EU Feared the Most: Boris Johnson Cruising to Victory
He has an opportunity to take substantial action on spending, health care, and Brexit. Is he radical enough?
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Since Theresa May’s very awkward impromptu dance at a Tory party conference last year, you could say that British Conservatives should probably refrain from pop-inspired musical numbers. That said, Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” applies quite well to Boris Johnson’s general election campaign. With a 12-point lead in the polls, Johnson could be looking at an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, which would give him a comfortable and loyal party to work with.
A few weeks back, nobody would have believed the Conservatives could electorally survive another extension to the Brexit deadline. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was set on overtaking the Tories from the right, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats were going to score the liberal mainstream pro-EU vote. Whatever was left of the Conservatives would be crushed under the weight of its own disunity.
Little did they know that Boris Johnson would file Brexit under “almost done” and embark on a free-market rhetorical journey instead. The word “capitalism” was uttered positively in the houses of parliament again—by the prime minister of all people. Boris understands that Jeremy Corbyn, until recently a self-described Marxist, embodies the capitalism versus socialism clash that many Brits remember from the 1970s and ’80s. While Tory voters had to give Margaret Thatcher the benefit of the doubt in 1979, today we can judge in hindsight. And Maggie was right: British industry was inefficient and the trade unions too strong; socialism was intellectually bankrupt and needed a charismatic and radical counter. Thatcher turned an unnavigable ship around and brought Britain back into business.
Theresa May was initially compared to Thatcher, but she spent her three years in office making Brexit as convoluted and incomprehensible as she could. Instead of translating uncertainty into hope, May split her party and the country.
With Boris Johnson now nearing 50 percent support, the Tories seem to have found their oddest and quirkiest uniter. Sure, his gaffes and colorful language don’t seem very statesmanlike, but the same was said for Winston Churchill (whom Johnson wrote a book about). Boris has the opportunity of a generation to make the UK into a country of opportunity. However, a misunderstanding of that opportunity could also cost him his legacy.
Boris is hard found to cut anything in his country’s currently out-of-control budget. Instead, annual spending under the Conservatives is set to rise by £3 billion ($3.87 billion) by 2024. Granted, that pales in comparison to the Labour Party, which vows to increase spending by £80 billion ($103 billion) in the same timeframe. But statesmen don’t govern by comparison; they govern by conviction.
Meanwhile the Conservative Party is vowing to cut four business taxes: the business rate, the R&D tax, the construction tax, and employers’ national insurance contributions. The problem is that Boris is also pledging a £33.9 billion ($43.7 billion) survival pack to boost the National Health Service (NHS) by 2024. Yet the NHS has grown thoroughly inefficient. Even Germany, whose public-private hybrid model for health care has much left to be desired with regards to reform, easily outperforms the UK.
It’s a fact that £20 billion ($25.7 billion) is needed annually to just to keep this NHS up and running. There is an 18-week waiting time standard for elective treatments, with cancer treatment waiting times at their worst levels ever. Horror stories include that of a patient with a broken back waiting seven hours to see a doctor.
You might like the “free at the point of use” that British NHS supporters constantly brag about, but as soon as you notice that you’re one of the 10,000 people not getting a hospital bed or you take out waiting ticket 365 after 210 has just been called—as happened to a Daily Mail reporter—you quickly reconsider the NHS’s effectiveness.
As for Boris’s Brexit plan, it sounds easier than it will actually be. Certainly the European Union couldn’t have dreaded anything more than Boris Johnson, an actual Brexiteer, rallying his troops behind him and getting a comfortable majority that doesn’t require any coalitions or pacts. He will try to get his deal ratified by Parliament in January, then conclude a free trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020. That’s a very ambitious goal—and it’s on top of all the other trade deals he’s promised, including one with the United States.
By setting that December 2020 deadline, he’s re-opened the possibility of a no-deal Brexit—since the withdrawal agreement required him to accept an extension period leading up to an FTA. Aching to end the Brexit saga once and for all, Boris might have given himself too little time to complete the task.
Either way, election day on December 12 is fast approaching, and Boris Johnson is looking at a comfortable win. Whether this is to be a conservative rebirth in Westminster or something more cynical and focused on its PM, it’s probably time we got used to Boris. He’s going to be with us for a while.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.