The United Kingdom’s Conservative Party is moving on from the outgoing prime minister, as members have begun voting on a new leader. After leading the U.K. government during Britain’s exit from the European Union and its uneven response to the coronavirus outbreak, Boris Johnson resigned on July 7 after almost three years as PM. The party forced him out following accusations that a top government official, the deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, engaged in several instances of unwanted sexual contact—as well as evidence that Johnson lied to his Cabinet and the public that he hadn’t known about a history of accusations toward Pincher before appointing him. As these machinations play out, Britons are living with rising inflation and a healthcare crisis. This week, millions received a one-time government subsidy to offset the climbing cost of living, with economists expecting inflation to hit 11 percent in the U.K. this year. Health authorities have put all domestic ambulance services on the highest level of alert, as emergency medical teams are overwhelmed by a surge in Covid infections and heat-related illnesses. When members of Parliament called in the health secretary for questioning on the ambulance crisis, the new secretary sent a junior minister instead, giving opposition leaders the opportunity to claim the Conservative Cabinet had given up on governing. Where has all of this left the country?
Matthias Matthijs is a senior fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. In Matthijs’s view, Johnson’s tenure has changed the United Kingdom in ways that will continue shaping it for many years to come. Its posture toward the EU was determined by Johnson and is now shared by both Conservatives and their opponents in the Labour Party. His decisions on Brexit have exacerbated historic tensions over the status of Northern Ireland and made the reunification of the island as a whole more likely. And, as Matthias sees it, Johnson has transformed the dynamic between his country’s two major parties with positions and rhetoric that won over many middle-class voters, leaving Labour with few opportunities to counter. As things stand, Matthias says, the United Kingdom now has less global influence after cutting itself off from the EU, while its future global standing—in a time when states worldwide are dividing into blocs, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—has become more uncertain.
Michael Bluhm: Johnson’s time as prime minister has been full of scandal and chronic controversy. Why did his party finally force his resignation now?
Matthias Matthijs: It’s a good question. They settled on him as their party leader because they knew that what they were about to embark on with Brexit was quite radical—and that it didn’t have broad support among the British public. About 52 percent voted to leave the EU, but 52 percent didn’t vote for this hard form of Brexit—leaving the European Single Market and the EU Customs Union.
Conservatives knew that there were going to be real costs to this type of Brexit. They needed someone like Boris Johnson, who had folksy, populist appeal. And it’s very hard now to find a successor who represents both the establishment wing of the Tory party—and this is the party of the establishment—and this new populist wing.
Johnson could have been forced out many times before this. Most government ministers knew he was lying to the public about some things, but what shifted with the Pincher scandal is that he Johnson to the ministers directly. He asked his colleagues to say to the media that he knew nothing about this while they all knew that he did. That was just one bridge too far.
Another reason he had to go is that the Conservatives started to realize that Labour was gaining in voter support. Johnson’s appeal had run out, now that they had to make Brexit a success—not just get it done. He’d become a liability.
Bluhm: So, Johnson belongs to both the British Conservative establishment and a global wave of populist leaders elected in recent years—including Donald Trump in the U.S., Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. What do you see Johnson sharing with these other populists, and how is he distinctive from them?
Matthijs: He’s distinctive in that he was probably the least authoritarian out of all of them. He’s not Trump, Orban, or Duterte. He’s a party man. Boris’s government collapsed because the party left him. The Republican Party hasn’t left Trump yet.
But he does share their anti-establishment appeal. He’s part of the establishment, but he spits on it at the same time. He’s not one for respectful rules; he’s all about getting around them. He also shares a bit of this tyranny of the majority: Democracy is the majority. Fifty-two percent voted for Leave, so we’re going to get this done—and forget the wishes of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
He was at his least coherent in this pose. As mayor of London from 2008 to 2016, he depended on global capital and high-skilled immigrants from all over the world coming to London—free trade, free capital flows, and free migration. Those are all things that populists are usually against.
Johnson got away with the incoherence of saying, in effect, We’re a small country, so we need to be a global trading nation—but on the other hand, we need to control immigration. He’s an interesting populist because he’s not a typical protectionist.
A key aspect of Johnson’s legacy in the nearer term is that the Conservative Party is no longer the party of the City of London, the Treasury, or the Bank of England. … On economic policy, [he] captured the broad center, which makes it very hard for Labour to find a winning position.
He shares with populists a willingness to use government largesse—fiscal policy—to stimulate the economy and to reinvest in parts of the country that had experienced a lack of investment. And he shares a skepticism of what markets can do on their own. The appeal of populists is that they are willing to go against financial elites who demand fiscal austerity and believe government spending only leads to inflation and to worse economic conditions.
Bluhm: What remains popular about his approach in the U.K.?
Matthijs: His legacy is very clear: No Conservative is talking about taking a softer line with Europe. Nobody is talking about cutting government spending, with the exception of Rishi Sunak, the outgoing chancellor of the exchequer, who represents the establishment view. Sunak will probably end up being among the final two potential successors as prime minister, but he will lack appeal among the Tory membership, which wants to see tax cuts and toughness on Europe. They’re much more pro-Brexit than the median U.K. voter.
A key aspect of Johnson’s legacy in the nearer term is that the Conservative Party is no longer the party of the City of London, the Treasury, or the Bank of England—with the exception of Sunak and a minority in the party.
On economic policy, Johnson captured the broad center, which makes it very hard for Labour to find a winning position. Are they going to raise taxes on everybody? Are they going to spend even more than the Conservatives? That would seem irresponsible.
His form of Brexit—which cuts off most close ties with the EU—is also his legacy. Maybe Labour would favor some treaties with the EU or want to be more conciliatory toward Europe in general. But I haven’t seen any of Johnson’s potential successors show a radical departure from his position.
What makes this leadership contest interesting is that the prospective leaders don’t disagree on policy. There will be a bit of a bidding war on how much taxes can be cut and how tough you can be on Europe, but that’s about it.
Bluhm: You refer to Brexit as a central part of his legacy. Where has his government left the Brexit process, and how do you see it affecting the country today?
Matthijs: They settled on a very “thin” deal—a narrow trade agreement that covers most goods. It’s tariff-free, but it’s not free trade. There are still all kinds of checks and rules for EU imports. It’s not cost-free, either; it requires a lot of administration.
They left an agreement on services for the future, and that’s where Labour promises to move the most. An example of services would be that if you’re British and you want to go to Berlin to do a job for three days, you now need a work visa. This could be simplified, but the EU is going to want something in exchange for simplifying it.
The biggest unsolved problem is Northern Ireland. Johnson chose to put the border between the U.K. and the EU in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain, instead of between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That meant that Northern Ireland basically stays in the realm of the EU rule-making orbit—and it also explains why Northern Ireland is the only U.K. region apart from London that has seen economic growth in the last few years.
The biggest unsolved problem is Northern Ireland.
There’s been a lot more integration between Northern Ireland and the Republic, because it was important for both the EU and the U.K. that there would not be any disruptions on the border between the two communities on the island of Ireland.
That’s been left unsettled. Checks are needed between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but Johnson hasn’t followed through on this. The EU is really anxious about it, because they know there’s a hole in the European Single Market here—there are no real checks, and that has to be sorted out.
Looking at the picture more broadly, the U.K. now has a thin trade deal that erases 40 to 50 years of closer integration with Europe. This is Johnson’s biggest legacy. You can imagine that in 20 years there might be some rapprochement between the U.K. and the EU—a special deal like what Norway or Switzerland has. It’s possible. But for now, it is toxic for a British politician to say, Being outside the EU isn’t working.
Bluhm: Johnson’s party has been in power since 2010. In the 2019 election, when he was party leader, they won seats in Parliament representing traditionally Labour areas, such as Northern England. But they’ve been losing ground nationwide in a few special elections this year. How do you see Johnson having changed the dynamics between the two parties?
Matthijs: More than former Prime Ministers David Cameron or Theresa May, Boris Johnson managed to make the Tories the party of the middle class again—not just the party of the rich, people with capital, or retirees.
He gave them very broad appeal by going back to the Thatcherite idea that people don’t have much money when they start out, so they vote Labour, but in the end, workers who don’t make a high salary all aspire one day to vote Tory because they’ll have something to protect. They’ll have assets—a house and some savings—and they will want lower taxes because that will be the most important thing to them. Boris brought that back: There’s nothing that stops us from appealing to constituencies that have voted for Labour for 100 years, because they all aspire to move up the economic ladder.
Brexit allowed Conservatives to promise something that many of these people had voted for: If you want Brexit to happen, you have to vote Tory. They achieved that, so now they need to pivot to their socioeconomic vision for the U.K. There’s a broad anti-woke sentiment, but that’s not going to be the major platform in the Conservative Party.
Where does that leave Labour? It’s going to be hard for Labour. They will have to appeal to voters as being a party with more integrity and more seriousness in governing than the Conservatives. They’ll say the Tories negotiated a bad Brexit, and they can improve on it—but they have to walk a very fine line because it’s going to be easy for the Tories to paint this as going back on Brexit. Assuming Johnson’s successor has a broad appeal, it’s going to be hard for Labour to win the next election.
Looking at the picture more broadly, the U.K. now has a thin trade deal that erases 40 to 50 years of closer integration with Europe. This is Johnson’s biggest legacy.
Bluhm: During the past few decades on both the left and the right, globally, there’s been a shift to more identity-based politics. For example, populists like Trump and Orban have claimed to represent the “real” people of their countries against corrupt elites, and at times they use blatantly nationalistic and even racist rhetoric. You mention that Boris Johnson was a little incoherent in trying to balance a populist stance against immigration with his country’s need for greater global trade after Brexit. To what extent did Johnson use this kind of identity-based, populist rhetoric, and how prominent are identity issues in U.K. politics?
Matthijs: The Tories have exploited cultural fears and identity fears, especially among a white, English-nationalist part of the country. Under Boris Johnson—and even under Theresa May before him—the party was aware that powerful cultural institutions such as the BBC, universities, and theaters were run by progressives and Labour supporters. The Conservatives never paid attention to it, but now they’ve started to realize that these institutions are important and that who runs them matters. That’s the beginning of a shift.
But it’s not like Labour is doubling down on identity. The party’s leader, Kier Starmer, is very careful to steer away from identity politics. He wants to make politics about class again, telling voters: Let’s not forget who benefits from Tory policies. Let’s not cover this up with identity politics. You may vote Tory because you feel that your identity is threatened, but what’s really threatened is your income. Conservative policies are hurting you, starting with a Brexit that was too hard.
Labour doesn’t want to touch the culture war, because they know they need to win back constituencies where progressive cultural ideas may not be as popular as progressive economic ideas are.
Bluhm: Last year, you suggested that the status of Northern Ireland was perhaps the most contentious aspect of Brexit. What does the collapse of Johnson’s government mean for Northern Ireland?
Matthijs: In the short run, it doesn’t mean much, because there’s a different problem in Northern Ireland: In this year’s elections, the winner was Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that wants reunification with the Republic of Ireland. There is now serious talk about Irish reunification in the medium term.
I would say that’s even more likely than Scottish independence, because Brexit was settled to keep Northern Ireland very closely aligned with the Republic of Ireland. Scotland is completely cut off from the EU, and Scotland is also much more integrated with England and Wales than Northern Ireland is.
But now it is likely that Northern Irish businesses are going to say, It’s much easier to do business with the rest of Ireland and with the EU, because there’s no border. There’s no drama. It’s less paperwork.
Boris Johnson set that in motion by choosing to put the border between the U.K. and the EU in the Irish Sea. That was the logical consequence of Johnson always denying that there would be tariffs or other trade barriers. There are all kinds of barriers, but he always said the EU was being unreasonable. This is the result of the choice he made for a hard Brexit.
The problem is that the U.K. will not be part of big, strategic discussions between the EU and the U.S. on dealing with the rise of China, containing Russia, and so on.
Bluhm: You also suggested last year that Johnson promoted Brexit as a way for the U.K. to improve its relations with the United States, which would make Britain better off. Where do the U.K.’s relationships stand now with the U.S. and EU?
Matthijs: Johnson showed with his Brexit deal that the U.K. could do things differently. You can cut yourself loose from the EU—but there’s a cost.
Traditionally, the U.S. has always liked dealing with the U.K. because it was a bridge to Europe and a direct voice on the European Council. That’s no longer the case. One question is whether the next Conservative government can settle the Northern Ireland issue in a way that the U.S. is comfortable with—and then they can move on to closer cooperation with the U.S.
That said, it’s a very different world today because of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the turn against free trade. Brexit made sense 10 or 15 years ago, but not after the world turned toward protectionism and toward blocs with their own industrial policies to deal with rising geopolitical threats.
Now the EU is going to do at a much larger scale what the U.K. wants to do by itself in industrial policy and in developing and promoting new technologies. In some fields, maybe the U.K. can take advantage of being smaller and leaner than the EU. But the U.S. is not going to share its biggest industrial secrets with the U.K. so it can get a leg up against EU competitors.
The problem is that the U.K. will not be part of big, strategic discussions between the EU and the U.S. on dealing with the rise of China, containing Russia, and so on. The big decisions will be made in Washington and Brussels, and the U.K. will just have to go along with them. It’s not clear that they have more power now as a third player than they did sitting at the table in Brussels and trying to satisfy their national interests there.
Bluhm: Where has Johnson left the United Kingdom?
Matthijs: I think he’s left the country relatively poorer and maybe less independent, because of this peculiar choice for a hard Brexit. Look at the demands on British citizens to travel to Europe now. These are things that matter in their day-to-day lives.
Inflation in the U.K. is going to be higher than in Europe. The British pound is weaker because of Brexit. It’s never gotten close to where it was in 2016. When you import most of the stuff you consume—especially your food—and if you go to Europe for your holidays, these things have become more expensive. It’s not clear how Britain could fix this without going back on some of the decisions they’ve made.
He’s left the U.K. less influential both in Washington and in Brussels—and even in Beijing. The things they’re going to achieve in the next few years will be largely symbolic, such as maybe a trade deal with the U.S. But the U.K. is going to have to concede things to the U.S. that they wouldn’t have had to concede as part of the EU.
Is it a disaster? No. Many people said the sky was going to fall after a hard Brexit, but it didn’t. It’s going to be hard to make the case in 10 years that the U.K. is fundamentally worse off, because they’re almost certainly going to be better off than they are today in overall economic terms. But what could have been?