As a Queen’s Speech, today’s was a constitutional travesty. Boris Johnson wants an early election; Jeremy Corbyn says he wants one, too. So the new session of parliament may last only a few weeks. In any event, the government is now well short of a majority: even if the new session staggers on for some months, the chances are minimal that any of the Bills set out today will pass into law.
However, for the moment, let us not be detained by the outrage of Her Majesty being compelled to read out a Conservative pre-election press release. What does its content tell us about Johnson’s intentions, should he survive the Brexit drama and then win a majority in the coming election?
The answer to that question depends on the answer to another: which of the two impulses that drive Johnson, and are currently pushing him in opposite directions, will end up triumphant: his values or his ego?
Johnson’s values—the Dr Jekyll side of his character—are those of a social liberal. He is no moral conservative: in this his private life and public views are in perfect alignment. He is pro-immigration as part of his genuine openness to people, ideas and businesses from around the world. On social policy, he belongs firmly in the Disraeli and Macmillan traditions of one-nation Conservatism. On taxes, borrowing and the role of the state, he is at heart a pre-Thatcher pragmatist.
And yet… he has become prime minister after spending three years leading the pro-Brexit faction of his party that believes in none of those things. If he needs to remain popular with Jacob Rees Mogg, Steve Baker, John Redwood and their like, then Mr Hyde will take over. In the book Hyde is an ego-driven monster. This version of Johnson has little time for the truth, parliament or the judiciary. Forget his liberal values. Expect the triumph of an authoritarian, laissez faire, little England nationalism.
Today’s Queen’s Speech provides examples of both Jekyll Johnson and Hyde Johnson. On the Jekyll side, we are promised an ambitious “national infrastructure strategy” and an end to the system of private rail franchises introduced at the tail end of the Thatcher privatisations. A new environment bill—an enthusiasm of Johnson’s partner and also his father—will set binding targets for reducing pollution, including plastic waste.
To those measures we can add the extra spending on schools and hospitals, and a commitment to a proper living wage, already announced. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that both borrowing and the government’s fiscal deficit will rise sharply, even if the UK leaves the European Union with a deal. But rather than tremble at the IFS’s verdict, Johnson embraces it as a sign that the austerity years are over.
Now to the Hyde measures. The biggest of these is straightforward populism: longer prison sentences for violent and sexual criminals, and harsher punishments for foreign nationals found guilty of criminal offences. Electorally this makes complete sense. To win a majority in the coming election, Johnson needs to woo many formerly Labour Leave voters in the party’s traditional heartlands. Harsher penalties for the worst offenders will help him attract the so-called “Alf Garnett vote.”
However, one of the great dividing lines in politics for some decades has been the extent to which penal policy should be driven by anger or evidence. Not only has no evidence been produced that today’s promises on punishment will do anything to reduce crime; the approach represents “the politics of the lynch mob,” according to Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who points out the dangers of increasing prison overcrowding and the risks to the safety of prison staff.
Also on the Hyde side of the equation are Johnson’s plans for a post-Brexit Britain to be free to scrap EU measures to protect workers’ rights and regulations that ensure product safety. It remains to be seen how restrictive the new immigration points system will be.
If Johnson ends up as Mr Hyde, his suppressed, more liberal self could do worse than mug up on what happened to Labour’s then leader, Hugh Gaitskell, 57 years ago.
In 1962, in his speech to his party’s annual conference, Gaitskell fiercely opposed any notion of the UK joining Europe’s Common Market. He warned that it would mean “the end of 1,000 years of history.” He received a standing ovation. As he left the stage, his wife, Dora, told him: “Hugh, all the wrong people are cheering”—by which she meant the delegates and trade union leaders who liked his Euroscepticism (to use a word invented since then) but opposed his wider plans to modernise the party.
If Johnson ends up being driven by his ego and the dynamics of his party into serving as an ideologically right-wing prime minister, his more liberal self might also end up reflecting that “all the wrong people are cheering.”
This blog first appeared in Prospect