These should be happy days for Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister has a comfortable majority in Parliament. His Labour opponent, Keir Starmer, is struggling to enthuse Britain’s voters. He is emulating his hero, Winston Churchill, in his rhetorical defiance of Vladimir Putin and his military support for Ukraine.
Indeed, Johnson enjoys great popularity in parts of Europe, following decisions to give military aid to Ukraine, and his own visit to Kiev to meet President Zelensky and his recent trips to Finland and Sweden to support their applications to join NATO.
He plainly enjoys the attention he receives on these visits, hoping that few people notice that Britain has in practice made it hard for Ukrainians fleeing the country to come to Britain, or that he gave evasive answers to the media when asked what specific military aid he was prepared to offer Sweden or Finland. So far these clouds have failed to darken his image in Scandinavia or eastern Europe.
At home it’s a very different story. The dominant truth about Johnson is that he is running scared. He cannot be sure he will lead his party into the next election – or even still be in office in six months’ time.
His big problem is that he is now one of Britain’s most unpopular Prime Ministers ever. The biggest reason for his decline is that he broke his own rules and lied about it. Indeed, 10 Downing Street, his official home and, in effect, government headquarters, has been found to have hosted repeated parties in violation of the laws that his own ministers had taken through Parliament.
So far the police have issued one hundred fines for people attending illegal Downing Street parties. Johnson is Britain’s first Prime Minister to be found guilty of committing a criminal offence. His long-standing reputation for evading the truth has got worse: 80 per cent of voters think he has lied about “partygate”. The sharp rise in the cost of living and the decline in living standards has added to his problems.
So Johnson limps on, politically wounded and allowed to continue not because his party colleagues respect him – most are well past that stage – but because they are not yet sure that anyone else would do better. In his fragile position, he will do nothing to offend his backbench MPs, and all he can to appease them.
The clearest example concerns Britain’s relations with the European Union. When Russia invaded Ukraine, and Britain worked with other European countries to help Zelensky thwart President Putin’s ambitions, some hoped that at least the tone, and possibly the substance, of London’s attitude to Brussels would be more positive.
It hasn’t happened. This is most obvious with the “Northern Ireland protocol”. This part of the EU-UK Brexit agreement is designed to tackle the tricky problem arising from the fact that Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but has an open, 500km border with Ireland, an EU state. That open border was a key element of the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the province 24 years ago. Northern Ireland is also the one part of the UK to stay within the EU’s single market.
To square the circle between Brexit on the British mainland and Northern Ireland’s special relationship with the EU, the UK agreed that British exports to the province across the Irish Sea would be subject to a system of checks and controls, in order to prevent goods that do not comply with EU rules illegally entering the EU across the Irish border.
Despite agreeing to the protocol, Johnson is now threatening to repudiate its main provisions. If he cannot persuade the EU to change the protocol radically (and that’s highly unlikely) he plans to pass a law that would remove the Britain-to-Northern Ireland checks and controls. The risks are obvious. If Britain unilaterally seeks to change a treaty it signed less than three years ago, the EU could retaliate and trigger a process leading to a trade war that would damage the UK far more than the EU.
Johnson insists that he must act because the protocol is harming Northern Ireland’s economy. The evidence says otherwise. A recent report by the highly respected National Institute for Economic and Social Research points out that argues that the province’s economy has outperformed rest of the UK since Brexit. It specifically credits “the Northern Irish protocol and its special status in the Brexit arrangements, including better trade and investment conditions as part of the EU’s single market and customs union”.
Separately, a survey of manufacturers in Northern Ireland has found that two-thirds of them now expect the Protocol to have either a neutral or positive impact, and that by three-to-one, they want it improved, not replaced.
Moreover, Johnson cannot even claim that the province’s politicians support him. In elections this month to Northern Ireland’s Assembly, just 37 of the 90 seats went to the Unionist parties that oppose the protocol; the other 53 members of the new Assembly want to keep it. We should not be surprised: in the Brexit referendum six years ago, the province voted by a clear 56-44 per cent majority to remain in the EU.
There is only one reason why Johnson is pursuing a policy that the province’s voters and businesses don’t want, that risks harming both Northern Irish and British economies, threatens to poison UK-EU relations and undermines the UK’s reputation for abiding by its international treaty commitments. The reason is that a critical number of Conservative MPs are hardline Brexiters. They oppose trade checks in the Irish Sea on principle.
These same right-wing MPs have also persuaded the Government to delay a key element of its strategy to fight obesity. This had included curbing the promotion of junk foods, by banning TV advertising of them before 9pm, and ending “buy one, get one free” supermarket offers on cheap, processed, high-calorie, waist-expanding food. This has moved William Hague, a former Conservative leader himself from the right of his party, to condemn Johnson’s capitulation as “intellectually shallow, politically weak and morally reprehensible.”
Were Johnson a strong leader, respected by the electorate and committed to advancing the UK’s true interests, he would stand up to his party’s free-market obsessives. Instead, he is scared of them, and so he caves in to their demands.
And still he thinks he walks in Churchill’s shoes.
This blog was first published by Carnegie Europe