Liberal, nuanced, cautious: is this the real Boris Johnson?

Toby Helm Political Editor
Photograph: POOL New/Reuters

It was only on general election day – 1 May 1997 – that Tony Blair began to focus on what he would actually do in government if he won. He left it until all the campaigning was over to ask to see a detailed plan for the first 100 days that David Miliband, then his head of policy, and Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, had spent much of the previous months devising. Until then, despite being miles ahead in the polls, “Blair hadn’t wanted to look”, Powell says.

Related: Johnson to cabinet: shape up or I’ll sack you within weeks

Once in No 10, however, the new PM and his administration set a scorching pace. “We ran for office as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour,” Blair said in his victory speech. And they did. Big surprises day after day added to a sense of national excitement. On day two, Gordon Brown announced the independence of the Bank of England. Soon after, the trade union ban at GCHQ was lifted. All handguns were banned. Nursery vouchers were scrapped. VAT on fuel was cut to 5%. And on it went for 100 days.

New prime ministers like to hit the ground sprinting. In Boris Johnson’s case, however, it has not been the scale of the announcements or their number that have particularly caught the eye. There has been no equivalent of the independence of the Bank. Rather, it has been the tone and the carefully charted direction of travel that have captured attention and caused some surprise.

During the election campaign, one of Labour’s attack lines was that Johnson would be the most rightwing prime minister the country had ever had. Even then, based on what had – and had not – been included in the Tory manifesto, Labour’s claim seemed open to challenge. A proposed Tory cut in corporation tax to 17% had been dropped from the Johnson manifesto – as had the idea of increasing the threshold for paying higher-rate tax to £80,000 a year. His blueprint for Britain lacked the radicalism or ideological underpinning of that put forward by Jeremy Corbyn and his party.

Since the election, however, the Labour caricature has seemed even more open to question. Deliberately, and no doubt partly for strategic political reasons, Johnson has not behaved as expected. The view of him as an unstintingly pro-Trump, pro-free market, anti-interventionist, ideologically driven Brexiter set on turning the UK’s back to the EU and its sights unblinkingly to Washington has not quite rung true or been borne out by events.

And, for the time being, it appears to be working for him: according to an Opinium poll for the Observer this weekend, 42% of people say he is doing a better job as PM than they had expected.

There have been surprises both at home and abroad. When, eventually, Johnson gave a response to the assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, it was far more nuanced and closer to that of the rest of the EU (which the UK will leave in less than two weeks) than many had expected. With Brexit now certain, Johnson has wanted to dial down the anti-EU talk and dial up the idea of close co-operation with the Europeans.

Domestically, there have also been oddly un-Tory moves. Last week’s decision to offer a rescue package for the struggling airline Flybe, while also legislating for extra NHS spending, was a striking departure for a Conservative government.

The normal Tory approach would be to allow such strugglers to fail. But this time ministers were at pains to point out that Flybe was a regional carrier which served all parts of the country, providing an important national and social as well as economic purpose. Lots of new infrastructure projects are promised for the same “regions”, and a rethink of the HS2 high-speed rail line is rumoured to be under way, with more focus and spending on the north of England.

Johnson told his cabinet recently that he was a “Brexity Hezza”. It will have escaped none of them that Michael Heseltine’s one-nation Toryism has always been based upon a commitment “to intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner”.

Johnson will need to do just that. At the election his party broke through the “red wall”, winning scores of traditional Labour seats. He has said since that he believes those votes were only “lent” to the Tories. Just as Blair in the 1990s set his sights on winning over much of the Tory south for good, Johnson now wants to do the same with Labour’s urban and northern heartlands.

Early noises by prime ministers after election wins often turn out to be little more than meaningless mood music. A case in point was Theresa May’s earnest commitment on the steps of Downing Street to help the less fortunate and less well-off climb the opportunity ladder. Her seemingly heartfelt pledges came to nothing as Brexit consumed and destroyed her time at No 10.

The hand of Dominic Cummings in projecting the PM as different and more interesting than the right-wing buffoon image is clear to see. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

The hand of Dominic Cummings in projecting Johnson as different and more interesting than the rightwing buffoon image is already clear to see. But could it be something more enduring than a short-term Cummings wheeze? People who have known Johnson a long time say there are plenty of reasons why he may well turn out to be different, now he has reached the top.

“His rightwing poses always struck me as mainly to advance himself in the Tory party, not because he held ardently to those views,” said one political ally who has worked with him and voted for him to be leader. “Now we will see what he does actually think.”

People who knew Johnson in Brussels, where he grew up and worked as a journalist, say he was never genuinely a hardline Euro-sceptic. They cannot believe he would really have wanted to quit the EU. Those who worked alongside him when he was mayor of London also say he was non-ideological and point to evidence of his social liberalism.

It is very, very early days for Johnson. He has ahead of him the huge task of negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which will reignite tensions inside his own party, and could cause friction with Washington. The climate crisis looms ever more urgently, and could do the same. The NHS is creaking and the social care system could bring the whole system crashing down. Growth is slow and funds are short.

It is these challenges – not the first easily negotiated days – that will be the real test of Boris Johnson and will show us what sort of a leader he really is.

The budget

March’s budget is a huge moment for Boris Johnson to show he is serious about helping the regions that helped deliver his majority. It also presents him with big decisions about how much he loosens the purse strings and what kinds of projects he funds. Some insiders already believe that the breakthrough in the Midlands and the north-east means he will need to look at more ambitious plans for those areas than were announced during the campaign. With Johnson at the peak of his powers, the Treasury is on board. Earlier tensions between No 10 and No 11 seem to have dissipated, with Johnson and chancellor Sajid Javid meeting twice a week. A main difficulty will be picking the right projects – those that can deliver tangible improvements within five years. But will spending on infrastructure projects be enough to offset continuing concerns about issues that have caused the Tories problems, such as universal credit and the NHS?

The Brexit conundrum

While “Get Brexit Done” was the Tory slogan that defined the 2019 election, it papered over the difficult reality that formally leaving the European Union at the end of January will be the easy part of the process. Negotiating a future trade deal with the bloc is the hard bit, made harder by Johnson’s refusal to extend the Brexit transition period beyond the end of the year. There is also a tension at the heart of the prime minister’s plan – voters in pro-Leave areas handed him a majority, but diverging too far from the EU in an attempt to deliver a “meaningful Brexit” could land Britain with a poor deal that hurts those areas the most. Delivering a clear break with the EU while preventing a big economic hit on new Tory constituencies is looking a tough trick to pull off, but Javid has signalled that Britain wants to diverge. The prime minister could give himself more time by extending the Brexit transition period. Doing so would require a major U-turn – but he has executed these before.

The reshuffle

With Brexit Day out of the way, a cabinet reshuffle is expected. While it will allow Johnson to put his favoured politicians in top jobs, reshuffles always present a danger to PMs soon after they are carried out, as the overlooked and the disgruntled begin to plot on the backbenches. Not long ago, most anticipated a major overhaul, with figures such as Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith among those at risk. However, the current cabinet are all working hard to deliver Johnson’s demands – meaning the reshuffle may now be less comprehensive. But there may still be a gender balance issue for the PM. Many of the vulnerable cabinet ministers are women – sacking them all could be a bad look for a PM who committed to helping women “reach their full potential” during the election. Andrea Leadsom, Liz Truss, Thérèse Coffey and Theresa Villiers could be demoted, sacked or moved.

The Cummings revolution

Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave strategy chief who helped plot Johnson’s route to power, has long harboured an obsessive desire to rip up the way Whitehall and government operate. Now in No 10, he is in a position to begin the rewiring. Depending on which of his many and lengthy blog posts you read, he wants to model government on the way Nasa was overhauled before the moon mission or altered to mirror the planning structures ahead of the US military’s Operation Desert Storm. Cummings has already called for “weirdos” to apply for new jobs within No 10 and is itching to take on the civil service. Remodelling and abolishing government departments could also be on his agenda, while he has long been a critic of the Treasury’s wide-reaching power. His brand of creative destruction within Whitehall is going to force Johnson into confrontations. Flashpoints are inevitable and the personal relationship between Cummings and Johnson will be important to watch.

Party tensions

With Labour reduced to its worst seat share since 1935 and the Lib Dems still in the doldrums – and both engaged in leadership battles – the internal tensions that emerge within the Tory party will provide the political intrigue. Johnson’s 80-strong majority has put him in a very strong position, but it also presents him with the task of keeping together a group of MPs from hugely different constituencies. Successful defences against the Lib Dems mean it still has many MPs in strongly Remain seats, alongside new seats in pro-Brexit areas and their traditional shire heartlands. Issues such as HS2, which could boost the Midlands and the north but receives opposition from some true blue Tory areas, could be an early flashpoint. The power and influence of the European Research Group will also be worth watching closely. The pro-Brexit group was a thorn in the side of Theresa May’s minority government, but with a thumping majority, Johnson has the option to marginalise it should he want to. There are no signs of that so far.

The Union

The strong performance of the SNP at the election means that its leader Nicola Sturgeon will be a central figure in this parliament. Johnson has already issued a comprehensive rejection of Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum, saying it would “continue the political stagnation Scotland has seen for the past decade”. However, the demands may be harder to deflect should the SNP win a majority in next year’s Scottish parliament elections. It means that the Tories will have to put a lot of time and effort into stopping that happening and figuring out a strategy if it does.

Some Tories already believe simply ignoring the demands is unsustainable. Meanwhile, the resumption of power-sharing in Northern Ireland was a huge early boost to Johnson, but risks remain. Brexit has stirred up questions about border polls, and any evidence of barriers being erected between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will inflame matters.
Michael Savage, Policy Editor