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The Iron Gentleman: After His Meteoric Rise, Britain is Entering Johnson’s Era

The Iron Gentleman: After His Meteoric Rise, Britain is Entering Johnson’s Era

The gentleman is not for turning.

The Iron Gentleman: After His Meteoric Rise, Britain is Entering Johnson’s Era

2212 1474 Michael Petraeus

W

hen Boris Johnson took over the reins of the country this July I didn’t think much of it aside, perhaps, from a certain pity for the man who was given British premiership in easily the worst conditions imaginable.

Conservatives – in charge since 2010 – have consistently failed to deliver on their Brexit promises and went as far as to block the deals negotiated by their own prime minister, leading to paralysis of the process of leaving the EU. Given that the Brexit vote in 2016 was extremely narrow – 51.9% in favor of leaving vs. 48.1% voting to remain – it was not unreasonable to expect public’s patience to finally run out with all the ridiculous shows put on by Tories this year and not only threaten their majority in the parliament but also reverse the course in a likely second Brexit referendum.

After all, they were already warned back in 2017, when May made a bet calling a snap election and got penalized for it badly, losing 13 seats – and the overall majority – despite higher share of the popular vote, but only 42.4% vs. Labour’s strong performance of 40%.

In other words, even with Jeremy Corbyn in charge the Labour party was breathing down the Tories’ necks and here they were this year making a series of blunders bickering with each other incessantly, throwing the country into a political paralysis.

Between April and July they began scraping the bottom – with some polls giving them less than 20%, while Labour, Lib-Dems and the Brexit party were all growing at their expense. Remain camp with Labour and Lib-Dems, aided by SNP, could reasonably expect 50% support – or more.

It wasn’t a surprise then, when in May they first lost 44 contested councils and a whopping 1300 councilor seats in the local elections, and later in the month only came fifth in the elections to the EU parliament, letting go of 3/4s of their seats (keeping only 4). Some consolation could be found in the fact that Labour suffered losses as well and most seats went to the Brexit Party, which won. That said – the voters were clearly losing faith in the ability of the Conservatives to deliver on the referendum’s results.

And then Boris Johnson came along.

The flamboyant former mayor of London and ardent Brexit campaigner attracted lots of derision and earned himself the label of “British Trump”. The fact is, however, that since he replaced Theresa May at the helm of the country on 23rd of July public support for him and the Tories has only surged.

From down to around 20%, the party pierced the 30% ceiling almost immediately and then steadily progressed towards 40% it touched in October and surpassed in November – despite Johnson’s fiasco in delivering on his promise of taking Britain out of the EU by October 31st, with or without a deal.

The Leader

I’m sure that many are scratching their heads how Boris Johnson has managed to succeed where Theresa May failed so badly – especially given his controversial reputation (both in private and public life) and questionable maneuvering in the past few months, when he bent the law to paralyze the parliament and push through Brexit (and even quite instrumentally used the Queen in his pursuits). Unlike May, he was brutal with opponents within the party, kicking 21 one of those who scuttled his latest deal reached with the EU (though, later admitting 10 back).

To add to it all, he refused to participate in interviews and political debates in the weeks before the election – can a politician affront his voters in a more egregious way?

And yet he’s the one celebrating a victory that will go down in history as one of the most spectacular comebacks for a party and for a politician. He was handed a rickety boat to captain and within five months turned it into a battleship under his near complete command, obliterating his opponents inside and outside of the party, while breaking many established norms in the process.

And that is why – paradoxically – he was rewarded by the voters.

In his own British version of “draining the swamp”, he had demonstrated to people that he is determined to do what it takes to make things happen, even if delivering it means skirting the law. Results is what people care about, not maintaining integrity of systems which have clearly failed to deliver.

This is the nature of true leadership – willing change into being, through necessary action, against all odds.

He refused to participate in interviews and debates because that would be politically demeaning – especially as Corbyn kept humiliating himself. He had shown in the previous months what his agenda and methods were – and wanted to keep that in people’s minds instead of distractions that TV shows create. Through his absence he isolated himself from his opponents, thus making them seem less important. Standing shoulder to shoulder, subjecting himself to the same treatment would make all of them appear equal. Instead there was Boris and there were all those who tried to stop him. Since Brexit was the core issue of this election there was no reason to allow any other topic to distract the voters from it.

Back in July it wasn’t inconceivable that Johnson would be merely an entertaining blip in the country’s political history, put in charge of a conflicted party tanking in polls, attempting to do the impossible of taking Britain out of the EU by the end of October – while that process has already decapitated his predecessor. Give him a few months and he’s gone.

And yet, here we are in December 2019 and not only is Boris still in office, he has just assured Brexit is finally going to happen by the end of January and won himself five years in office with a strong Conservative majority, the largest any party has secured since Tony Blair – and the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher.

And it’s comparisons to the Iron Lady that can now be drawn, as Johnson appears to be exhibiting many of her trademark features. He’s uncompromising and pursues his goals by all means possible. Where ordinary bureaucrats would have retreated, he kept pushing ahead – even suspending the parliament, with the aid of the Queen he dragged into it.

One of the many trademark phrases of Thatcher’s era was “the lady is not for turning” – stated in 1980 when she already faced opposition to further liberalization of the British economy even within her own party. Many others would have balked but she wasn’t the person making any U-turns once she made her goals clear.

And now, 40 years later Boris Johnson wasn’t going to make any U-turns either.

Even when he was compelled by the parliament to ask for an extension (what could reasonably be argued as a violation of the tripartite, since legislative branch forced the executive to do something that was entirely within its prerogative to decide on) he did all he could, including sending two letters, asking – in the one that he did sign – for no further extensions.

Of course it served his political purposes, as he promised to take Britain out of the union by end of October but was stymied in his actions – yet still could be considered a failure by the voters. So it was necessary for him to demonstrate his conviction. That said, it was also a risky bet because it could have made him look desperate or even unhinged, trying all possible measures to achieve something in the face of opposition on all sides.

And yet the voters – much like during the Thatcher’s years in office – rewarded steadfastness of the new leader by granting him the stronger mandate he so badly needed.

There’s nothing to suggest that earning it will now make Johnson softer or more flexible, as – on the face of it – he doesn’t need to make strong postures since he already won. And yet, to reaffirm his commitments he set a fixed, legal deadline for the Brexit process at 31st of December 2020 – what, some people, claim is too risky and unnecessary.

It does, however, serve both practical and political purposes for Johnson. Practical in the sense that a fixed date focuses the mind and automatically sets the schedule for everything else that needs to be done within the determined time frame. And political, because it demonstrates that the new British Prime Minister is just as dedicated to his mission as he was during the campaign.

He now has a very comfortable situation – and a considerable amount of time – to steer the country the way he has always promised to – and be judged by it at the end of his term. It’s largely smooth sailing ahead until 2024 – with the exception of another independence bid brewing in Scotland, as SNP enjoyed a landslide of its own.

That said, save for the possible break up of the UK by the Scots (much like Johnson is breaking up the EU) the country is firmly in Tory leader’s hands. He has demonstrated commitment and now has to do what he promised. If he fails, he will have nobody else to blame.

In some ways he is facing a situation similar to Thatcher’s. Even though British standing today is far better than what the Iron Lady had to deal with (high inflation and high unemployment, emerging from the stagflation-plagued 70s) the discontent with the country’s rather stagnant growth (and weakening pound) was exhibited not only by the Brexit vote but by unprecedented wave of support for Tories in constituencies traditionally voting for far more socialist Labour.

In other words, Boris Johnson has attracted people who expect him to take greater care of them – much like millions expected that of Thatcher, as she embarked on series of painful and often controversial reforms to turn the country around.

She managed to resist the demands for softening the blow of her reforms and emerged a winner from year long strikes by coal miners and print workers, ushering in a wave of modernization and privatization which are now mostly fondly remembered.

Boris Johnson will have to balance the urge to spend money as an expression of gratitude for generous support of the voters, with reforms that could improve Britain’s economic growth and deal with its pile of debt – especially as it is going to have to grapple with the fallout of Brexit that may hurt many of its service and export oriented industries.

If the UK is to perform well outside of the EU it has to shed some weight to gain new competitive advantages and remain an attractive business destination.

Boris Johnson has won all he wanted – he now has to show he can handle it.

When the ballots are cast again in 2024 we should already know if he’s the Thatcheresque figure he shows a promise of becoming right now. Otherwise he may go down in history as a duplicitous populist who wrote the sad final chapter of the collapse of the British Empire that began a century ago.

Either way, he’s leading his country through a watershed moment and future generations will study his accomplishments of the coming years – whatever their result.


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Michael Petraeus

Economist, marketer, designer and business strategist publishing about the past, present and the future.

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