The Pathologies of Long Boris
LONDON – We know that people who are infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 may suffer from symptoms that last for weeks or months after the infection has passed. Similarly, the fall of disgraced British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the election of his successor by the Conservative Party in the coming weeks, will likely have serious lingering effects. Call it Long Boris.
The United Kingdom is already dealing with “Long Brexit” – the corrosive long-term effects of Britain’s departure from the European Union on both the economy and the language and conduct of our politics. Now, this illness is being compounded by the corrupting and debilitating impact of Johnson’s premiership on British politics and government.
Johnson had no respect for the standards of governance, the integrity of institutions, or the crucial importance of making rational choices between often incompatible public-policy objectives. His legacy of populist mendacity cannot be buried by the naming of a new Conservative Party leader. On the contrary, Long Boris is shaping – and distorting – the election process.
We know that Brexit has badly hurt the United Kingdom’s economy – probably knocking 4% off our potential GDP in the long term – and diminished our international influence. We also know that, contrary to the claims of Brexit supporters, it has not given Parliament more control over Britain’s destiny. Instead, a populist government has gained more power to do what it wants, without much regard for parliamentary accountability. The notion that Brexit has enabled the British to “take back control” over their own lives is a chimera.
At this point, most people – even those as strongly critical of Brexit as I am – probably accept that the referendum decision, now six years old, cannot be undone or reversed in the near future (one day perhaps, but not yet). At the same time, as UK exports plummet and our trade deficit soars, even adamant Brexiteers should want to cultivate a positive relationship with our European neighbors, which represent our largest and most important market.
Yet, while that might be the case in a more rational and calmer political environment, it is not true today. The EU is now treated as an alien influence and even an enemy. Any reference to strengthening UK-EU relations – no matter how pragmatic – is taken as heresy.
This is apparent in the current race to succeed Johnson. Even candidates who once expressed support for remaining in the EU would run a mile before creating the impression that they would take a constructive approach to our future European relationship. Meanwhile, some dyed-in-the-wool Brexiteers are now thought to be insufficiently ideological on the subject. There is no real debate about Britain’s best interests.
Discussions of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland exemplify this failure. The Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, committed the British government to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Protocol, part of the UK’s EU withdrawal agreement, was devised to protect this peace: by allowing Northern Ireland to function almost as if it were still a part of the EU’s single market and customs union, it allowed for a nearly open border.
Hardline Brexiteers now want to scrap the Protocol. No matter, apparently, that this would mean violating our withdrawal agreement with the EU, risking our membership in EU research programs (which have offered tremendous value to our best universities), and jeopardizing the Good Friday Agreement.
If one so much as suggests re-examining the Northern Ireland question, they risk being treated as an ideological apostate. So, we drift on a tide of foolish prejudice that has nothing to do with what is best for Britain. Thus, Long Brexit menaces our future prospects, and Long Boris corrupts the debate about what should be done to minimize the risks.
We need leaders who will be honest about our problems in the short, medium, and long term. We are becoming poorer than our neighbors, with our per capita growth and productivity lagging behind theirs. We confront surging energy prices, soaring inflation, and public-sector strikes. Our fiscal deficit is uncomfortably high. Our influence is diminished.
Far from recognizing these challenges, let alone proposing sensible solutions, the candidates to succeed Johnson are trying to win votes with reckless proposals like ever-larger tax cuts. They ignore the fact that, without responsible spending reductions, the only way to afford across-the-board tax cuts would be to plant what conservatives used to denounce as a “magic money tree.”
Such cuts would not address soaring inflation, either. They would, however, lead to further downward pressure on the pound, higher interest rates, and financial turbulence. By proposing them, the principal candidates to lead the Tories have shown an utter disregard for the fiscal responsibility that has long been regarded as a core Conservative principle.
There is one exception. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak refuses to abandon the notion that expenditure should bear some relationship to revenue. A one-time Johnson supporter and a long-time Brexit advocate, Sunak is now being targeted by Johnson’s supporters over the tax issue, largely because he helped to ensure Johnson’s eviction from high office.
The UK needs a government that is pragmatic, internationalist, responsible, and capable of delivering some semblance of stability and certainty at a time of upheaval. But it is difficult to imagine how such a government could emerge from the escalating dogmatic delinquency now underway.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford and the author of The Hong Kong Diaries (Allen Lane, 2022).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.
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