‘The clock is ticking.’ It is surely only a matter of time before Michel Barnier returns to his notorious catchphrase from the Brexit talks. The EU’s chief negotiator is already warning that if a trade deal cannot be agreed ‘within the constraints of the time limits imposed by the British PM’, then there will be ‘consequences’ as the UK and EU will end up trading on World Trade Organization terms. Or, as the prime minister prefers to call it, an Australia-style deal.
Last time around, because Theresa May had no majority in parliament, Barnier was able to throw the British side into confusion: it was quite possible that Brexit could be delayed, or even abandoned. But now the prime minister has a majority of 80 and doesn’t need to worry about parliament undercutting his negotiating position. Just because the clock is ticking, this doesn’t mean he’ll request extra time via an extension to the transition period. The prime minister believes in deadline pressure (typically for a journalist) — and takes the view that nothing would ever get done without one. He also thinks it is politically pointless to drag the negotiations out into next year.
He has three tests for a successful completion of Brexit. Does the European Court of Justice have jurisdiction in the UK on anything other than EU citizens’ rights? Is the UK still sending large payments to Brussels? Does free movement still exist in any way? If these three tests are satisfied, then the prime minister does have considerable room for maneuver on everything else.
His great achievement has been to press reset. He has successfully persuaded the public that he is the prime minister of a new government, rather than being the third Tory PM in a row. That sense of newness meant he wasn’t tainted by Theresa May’s failures on Brexit: after last year’s European elections, when the Tories came fifth with nine percent of the vote, few would have predicted that the party could win over almost half of the country in a Brexit-themed general election a few months later.
Johnson’s ability to distance himself from his predecessors’ failing doesn’t just apply to Brexit. He can take a hard line on law and order without the spike in violent crime in the past few years being thrown back in his face. When emergency legislation was introduced this week to prevent the automatic early release of terrorists, he wasn’t faced with a barrage of questions about why these changes weren’t made sooner.
During the general election, no issue worried the Tory leadership more than the NHS. They feared that the biggest danger to their electoral hopes was the public believing that the Tories couldn’t be trusted with the health service. The PM’s response to this was to emphasize that he was going to put ‘massive investment’ into the NHS and to talk about his hospital building plan. The message was clear: his government was going to take a very un-Tory approach to the NHS.
Since the election, Johnson has tried to reinforce this sense that he runs a new administration. The ‘people’s government’ tag line is meant to differentiate it from the governments of Cameron and May. But the ticking clock he worries about isn’t Barnier’s, but the electoral one. He has five years until he needs to call a general election, but he’d prefer to do it in four. That means he has no time to waste.
The government is acutely aware of this. It is keen to crack on with planning reform now (despite it having been downplayed in the manifesto) not just because it is best to get unpopular decisions out of the way as quickly as possible, so that they have receded by the next election — but also because such changes take years to have an effect. It takes time to complete new housing developments.
The same is true for plans to hire 50,000 more nurses, 20,000 police officers and build those new hospitals. This explains why the government is so focused on ‘delivery’. While David Cameron was a great one for U-turning, Johnson wants his word to be his bond: the opposite to what his detractors say about him. Westminster might be clamoring for more policy from this new government, but what Downing Street is fixated on is how to ensure that it can deliver on the commitments it has already made.
So rather than just coming up with new ideas, the Downing Street Policy Unit has been charged with keeping tabs on how well departments are doing in delivering the Tories’ manifesto commitments. The government’s reform of Whitehall structures will be focused on making it much clearer who — in terms of both ministers and officials — is responsible for delivering a policy. The view in Downing Street is that they have to hold departments accountable on these matters because the voters will hold them accountable at the next election.
Delivering these projects matters a lot, because much of Boris Johnson’s agenda won’t have had an effect by 2024. This week his decision to go ahead with HS2 commanded the headlines, for good and ill. But even the London to Birmingham section won’t open until 2030, assuming no further delays. Indeed, in terms of the next election, the £5 billion announced for local buses is almost certainly more important than the £100 billion-plus decision on HS2, as the changes to buses will affect voters’ lives before the country next goes to the polls.
While the Labour party is in a mess, it is not as devastated as the Tories were in 1997, so it might plausibly be ready to take power in a few years. Unlike Blair, Boris has not won a two-term mandate. The public, and especially the Tories’ new voters, will be keen to see that things are getting better before supporting them again. This means that it is particularly important to show a cynical electorate that this government delivers on what it promises.
The Irish election result showed that in contemporary politics, voters don’t thank the governing party for the economy doing well unless they feel that their own lives are getting substantially better too. The Brexit debate managed to save the Tories this time around, leading voters not to focus on what has been, for living standards, a lost decade. They’re unlikely to be as forgiving next time, so the Tories must make some progress.