Boris Johnson is often described as a lucky politician and when it comes to his own career or political survival, he is. An alternative view, though, is that his premiership has been pretty unlucky, hit by two huge existential crises which have and will derail his wider strategic goals.
Covid and Ukraine are just the two that have hit on his watch. Nearly 15 years of cumulative crises and fallouts have revealed structural weaknesses in the UK and, by wrecking public finances, inhibited efforts to undo the damage. One former cabinet minister sighs: “It’s just one crisis after another. No chance to make progress.” Britain was not alone in facing most of these crises but they broke its political consensus. The structure of the UK’s economy, meanwhile, left it particularly exposed.
To the financial crisis, the pandemic and now Ukraine, one can add the legacy of the Iraq war and the three years of political chaos, mistrust and division which followed the Brexit vote (itself an aftershock of the financial crisis).
Iraq weakened western resolve over Syria and the first Ukraine invasion in 2014. The financial crisis both exposed underlying weaknesses in the British economy and smashed the prevailing economic doctrine. Tolerating huge income inequalities as long as most boats were rising was finished. Even before Ukraine, China’s increasing oppression and assertiveness wrecked the notion that economic interconnectedness would prevent conflict and pull autocratic regimes into the western model. Populist movements showed the enduring power of nationalism over multilateralism.
George Osborne’s austerity, which followed the financial crisis, weakened civic institutions and eroded public services in ways exposed during the pandemic. The NHS lacked capacity, while social care and other local services were chronically underfunded. The UK still delivered a strong economic response to the pandemic but those policies pushed it further from the goals it had identified before Covid struck. With each crisis, the pressures on the public finances deepened, diminishing readiness for the next one.
The prime minister inherited a raft of infrastructure decisions delayed by predecessors for reasons of funding or political expediency. Decisions on the next generation of nuclear reactors are a decade overdue. Onshore wind development was stopped to appease Tory voters.
Johnson, and to a degree Theresa May before him, began moving the Conservatives beyond the Thatcherite consensus. Johnson, whose sympathies have long been with Tory interventionists like Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, won not only with his promise to “get Brexit done” but also to end austerity. Allied with radical figures like Michael Gove, he promised an active state investing in skills and infrastructure, focused on technology and sectors of national resilience and reforming the machinery of government.
Each crisis has validated the case for rebuilding. From demonstrating the value of a thriving pharmaceutical and science sector to highlighting the need for resilient supply chains and energy security. (Brexit, which disrupted trade and supply chains, notwithstanding.)
The first post-election Budget of Johnson’s government showed his intent. Yet the pace has been slowed by Covid and, as significantly, Johnson’s own political problems. The ambitions remain, but with money tight the political will is weaker. For MPs and so for Johnson, the priority is immediate threats.
The nation appears ready for a long-term plan to strengthen the economy and society. But Johnson also remains ahead of his party, a large part of which clings to a Thatcherite ethos, unconvinced that the state can be a force for good. Even when crises prove his case, Tory orthodoxies kick in. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has spent the past year resisting unfunded pledges and clawing back spending on some of the early priorities. Science promises have been trimmed. No extra funds were found for the flagship levelling-up white paper.
All this is understandable, but the constant crisis mode means ministers struggle to look beyond the moment to the next challenge. Ahead of next week’s spring statement, they face pressure to increase defence spending, to shield voters from energy inflation and calls to cut fuel duties.
Before Ukraine, thoughts were already on the next election, underscored by Johnson’s fight for political survival. Strategists and many MPs see early tax cuts as key. Yet the sustained spending required for the larger mission is hard to square with a party overly focused on tax cuts, uneasy with the net zero goals and wedded to arbitrary borrowing limits.
A confident Johnson would steer into the storm. But external events and his own political vulnerability are diverting him. The lure of short-term fixes will be strong. Furthermore, this is the work of detail and decades and the prime minister, while a supreme campaigner, relies on good times and is poor at the hard, dull graft of delivery.
Johnson is probably the one figure in British politics currently capable of selling the costs of that long-term vision. But future-proofing the nation against crises demands not only a gifted storyteller but a skilled administrator with the confidence to drive their party in ways it does not wish to go. And perhaps more luck than he actually enjoys. The UK has a Johnson, when what it really needs is a Thatcher or a Blair.