Boris Johnson’s agenda is over — a new politics will emerge

Financial Times, by Robert Shrimsley
22.03.20

Voters will not tolerate another NHS winter flu crisis with too few medical staff.

One thing is clear. However the coronavirus crisis plays out in Britain, the Boris Johnson government we thought we knew is over. The rest of his premiership will be spent on this crisis and its aftermath. There will be little space for anything else. And that is assuming that he is still in place to oversee the aftermath.

Some of his government’s innate Gaullism may still fit with what comes next, but other aspects of the Johnson revolution, the assault on the civil service or the BBC, the drive for lower taxation and some of the regional policy are vanishing before our eyes. 

Even Brexit must have a question mark over it, if not yet on whether it happens, most definitely on when.

There is obviously no certainty that Mr Johnson comes through this as prime minister at all, though those dreaming of his downfall should remember that the worse things get for him the worse they must first have got for the nation. While he has the parliamentary numbers to stay in power, there could conceivably come a point when early mistakes cost him the support of his own party and the country. If he gets through the crisis he may be broken by it and the recriminations which follow. There is no avoiding the grisly global scorecard against which he will be judged. But even if he endures, the landscape will be changed entirely.

Wartime parallels offer some pointers on how the political consensus will be changed post-crisis. These things can be overstated — for one thing, the world wars brought people into contact with those from other sections of society; this crisis is reducing proximity. But wartime mobilisation and central planning smoothed the path to nationalisation and the welfare state, a fact not lost on some on today’s left who see the scope to recharge some of their policy positions. Narratives will be built around this crisis and few will be about overfunded services or an overactive state.

Much will depend on the duration and depth of the crisis, the speed of any economic rebound and the recriminations which follow. Even so, the alternate paths of Johnsonian Gaullism (strong-state nationalist conservative) or democratic socialism have enough overlap to make some educated guesses about a post-crisis consensus. 

The easiest shifts to predict are around resilience. There will be an absolute demand to fund spare capacity in the National Health Service. The Tories already face a reckoning on underfunding. Voters will not tolerate another NHS winter flu crisis, with too few medical staff and too little equipment.

Likewise we will see a new emphasis on self-sufficiency. The case for reducing agricultural subsidies will seem prelapsarian. There will be a political need to protect sectors such as manufacturing, technology and pharmaceuticals that allow a nation to cope with such crises and a return to the notion of essential protected national champions. This is not far from some of Mr Johnson’s agenda but also appeals to Labour.

The return of government as stakeholder more generally is also likely, partly as a consequence of crisis actions to save the economy and what is likely to be a long and painful aftermath.

In addition, the arguments against it have been weakened in some sectors. This is most immediately obvious in privatised utilities, especially rail. Conservatives see the risk and are wary of maintaining the crisis structures of a dirigiste state. This is why the structure of some measures, including the suspension of railway franchises, is designed to be temporary. It remains open whether that stance can hold. 

What will not be easily shifted will be the sense of the state as a force for good. Free-market liberals seeking to cut government and bureaucracy will face a fight to hold the gains of recent decades.

More complex will be the response on welfare and inequality. While the pandemic is not a crisis of capitalism, it highlights the system’s weak spots, most notably around unprotected workers and those on precarious incomes. Many lost jobs will not come back as companies see means and need for leaner operations. For some this will strengthen the case for a universal basic income or a more generous safety net. At the very least we are likely to see demands for more protections for gig workers. The crisis strengthens those who want policy to think of the less fortunate.

More broadly, after sharing a searing national experience, the public may be newly attracted to the notion of collective effort. Might this make easier the demands that must come to tackle climate change; or might everyone be too focused on getting their lives and the economy back on their feet?

It is possible that this is overstated; that politicians and voters will see this crisis as unique and rush to return to how things were before. But a new consensus for big, active, more expensive government looks the better bet.