In two weeks’ time the UK will have a new Prime Minister and a new government, its third in four years. All signs are that Boris Johnson will at last achieve his life’s ambition and enter the hallowed portals of Downing Street. But this still leaves the question- What kind of PM would Johnson make?
Johnson’s eight-year reign as London’s mayor, from 2008 to 2016, offers some clues to his leadership style. One thing is for sure and that is the next government will be much showier and more outgoing then the May administration ever was with a front man noted for his ability to generate laughter and a mood of upbeat bonhomie. Who, after all, can forgot Boris stranded on a zip-line during the 2012 Olympics?
The government will also become more interested in the grand statement then we have seen in the past with a more expansive approach to life which has not been possible in the age of austerity. Boris has shown with his support for the new Thames Estuary Airport, or Boris Island, that he is not afraid to think big and outside of the box. Large infrastructure projects engage his mind and speak to his sense of grandeur and so will focus in this thinking as Prime Minister. The issue remains, however, the detail which is not Johnson’s strong point.
Boris’ mayoralty was in many ways successful because he was able to outline the big vision and get the support for its delivery while leaving the details to other more qualified individuals. City Hall was run on a day to day basis by a series of very able deputies who made things happen. Although this way of working did not serve him well as Foreign Secretary it can be a very effective way to operate as a Prime Minister who must able to understand all aspects of government while being a master of no particular field. Should he choose the right cabinet colleagues and the right Downing Street advisors then we may well see his energy as an asset rather than a liability. Boris will need channelling and challenging, however, as if he is allowed to roam free we see maverick Johnson emerge who is gaff prone.
Boris has shown support throughout his career for the One Nation Conservatism which promotes unlocking free enterprise, include defending human rights, active global leadership and conserving the environment. He has suggested over the last few months that he would prioritise home ownership and fiscal devolution for local councils, giving them incentives to build more houses and encourage more small private builders. He has also called for more stop and search powers for policing, a ‘properly funded NHS’ and a celebration of business. Launching his official campaign for the Tory leadership earlier this month, Johnson also pledged to cut income tax for people earning more than £50,000 a year and encourage ‘green finance.’
Brexit, however, will be the crucible on which his administration will be truly tested. Our attempt to leave the EU has already seen off two Prime Ministers and there is no guarantee that he will not go the same way. Parliament remains heavily divided on what to do with no policy able to attract the support of a majority. Boris has risen from the ranks of the Tory Eurosceptic right and is seen as their champion to deliver on the promise of the referendum. This is both his strength and his weakness as he alarms as many as he enthuses.
Johnson has said he is ‘not aiming for a no-deal outcome’ for Brexit should he become PM. However, he has refused to take it off the table, calling it a ‘vital’ negotiation tool for securing a better withdrawal agreement with the European Union. ‘It is right for our great country to prepare for that outcome,’ he said, adding that any delay to leaving the EU beyond 31 October would ‘further alienate not just our natural supporters but anyone who believes that politicians should deliver on their promises.’ Although this position may well strengthen his hand with Brussels it is a dangerous one for Westminster as he has no majority and a significant number of his own MPs have stated they will vote against the government is a ‘No-Deal Brexit’ looks likely.
To do this, Boris will need every ounce of his salesmanship and his ability to generate bonhomie to achieve what has so far been impossible. If he can create a coalition of support within and without of Parliament to deliver Brexit he will be seen as a success but should be fail, then he will follow in the footsteps of David Cameron and Theresa May.