Breakingviews: Boris Johnson’s woes obscure deep UK divisions

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks at Downing Street in London, Britain July 6, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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LONDON, July 6 (Reuters Breakingviews) - The end is in sight for Boris Johnson. The prime minister’s grip on power is slipping after two senior members of his cabinet resigned while questioning his competence. But the debate over his suitability for office masks deep divisions over a range of policy issues. A new leader will find them even harder to reconcile.

The last time two senior ministers quit the cabinet on the same day, in 2018, it was because they disagreed with Theresa May’s handling of Brexit. Johnson was one of them. What was striking about Tuesday’s exodus was the absence of disagreement over policies. Instead, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, the health secretary, pointed to the prime minister’s apparent lack of ethical standards.

Yet the chaos of Johnson’s administration has helped to obscure fundamental and unresolved debates over Britain’s direction following its departure from the European Union. The government has pursued both state intervention and free trade, and talked of cutting taxes while raising the fiscal burden to its highest share of GDP since the 1950s. It has advocated financial deregulation while introducing vague and far-reaching powers to intervene in corporate takeovers. Johnson has prioritised international cooperation on Ukraine and climate change while controversially legislating to nullify parts of his Brexit deal with the EU, less than two years after signing it.

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These tensions are now resurfacing against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis. The Bank of England expects inflation to hit 11% by the end of the year, combining with higher energy bills to produce the second-biggest squeeze on real household incomes in almost 60 years.

Ejecting Johnson will only serve to highlight these contradictions. Those eager to replace him will face questions on a range of topics. Will they cut taxes or attempt to keep public debt under control? Will they do more to shield consumers from high energy costs? Will they rip up or repair the Northern Ireland agreement? Will they inject state money into private companies, or let market forces take their course?

Johnson’s election victory in 2019 owed much to his ability to persuade people on both sides of these debates that he agreed with them. Though he may extend his tenure by days, weeks, or even months, that balancing act has run its course. His potential successors will find the inherent tensions of Britain in 2022 even more difficult to resolve.

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

CONTEXT NEWS

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was clinging to power on July 6, wounded by the resignation of ministers who said he was not fit to govern and with a growing number of lawmakers calling for him to go.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, the health secretary, resigned on July 5, along with several in more junior roles, saying they could no longer stay in government after the latest in a series of scandals blighted Johnson’s administration.

Nadhim Zahawi, the new finance minister, on July 6 said he would be the “evidence-led chancellor” when asked about potential policy changes, including taxes.

The latest scandal saw Johnson apologising for appointing a lawmaker to a role involved in party welfare and discipline, even after being briefed that the politician had been the subject of complaints about sexual misconduct.

In his resignation letter Javid said that Johnson’s narrow victory in the June vote of confidence by Conservative party lawmakers “was a moment for humility, grip and a new direction.”

He added: “I regret to say, however, that it is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership – and you have therefore lost my confidence too.”

Sunak wrote: “Our people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true. They need to know that whilst there is a path to a better future, it is not an easy one.”

The pound fell almost 2% against the U.S. dollar on July 5. It was trading at $1.1973 by 0730 GMT on July 6.

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Editing by George Hay, Streisand Neto and Oliver Taslic

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