Boris Johnson’s arrival as Prime Minister this week was hardly a surprise – yet there is a strong sense of unreality and disbelief permeating not just Westminster but also across the rest of the country. How on earth did we end up with such a right-wing administration, seemingly happy to embrace the catastrophe of a ‘no deal’ Brexit? Theresa May’s failure to get her withdrawal agreement through Parliament is partly to blame. Perhaps even more so the abject failure of HM Opposition to offer a viable, credible alternative.
By sacking more moderate Conservatives and replacing them with a set of Ministers forced to ‘take the pledge’ in favour of a no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson has thrust an anti-European pro-deregulation agenda on the country. It is highly unlikely that he can secure a sustainable majority in the Commons, because if even just three or four Conservative MPs vote against his plans, he doesn’t have the votes. However, in our unwritten constitution it is the person who holds the executive keys to Downing Street who can wield phenomenal power – sometimes even in the face of objections from the House of Commons (see below re Jacob Rees-Mogg comments to me this week).
Priti Patel is a new Home Secretary who apparently supports the death penalty. Gavin Williamson is in charge of education even though it’s only a few months since he was sacked for allegedly leaking secrets from the national security council. Grant Shapps is in charge of Transport who is an individual who used to go by the pseudonym Michael Green! While it will be interesting to see how the more moderate Philip Hammond / David Gauke / Greg Clark’s now behave in Parliament, once out of office they are out of power.
I have many objections to the Boris Johnson agenda – especially on Brexit. But underlying this is an even more troubling tendency towards populism, in the same way Donald Trump has used in the States. He makes unrealistic sweeping promises which he knows cannot be fulfilled, but they are grand enough to hook in the support and often channel anger, division and resentment, sadly often directed at migrant communities. Selling snake-oil policies to dupe the public is the lowest form of politics, ultimately destined to dash the hopes and trust of those who fall for the sales pitch. We find this approach now in the UK on both the hard right and hard left, with ideology-driven politicians who promise big solutions at apparently no cost. Yet these are fake promises and most people in their hearts know it is unreal and undeliverable.
Unfortunately for those of us who urge people to follow evidence, look at both sides of an argument, consider affordability and to think about the long term and not just the short term, it is hard to counteract the allure of instant grand promises. My hope is that most people will see through the populism and ideologies of those on the fringes and recognise that the best approach lies in the centre ground, where we deliver a strong and well-regulated market economy that generates sufficient resources to pay for decent public services and protect the most vulnerable in society.