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The Boris Factor

“…we need to remember the ways in which this British Prime Minister (Churchill) helped to make the world we still live in. Across the globe – from Europe to Russia to Africa and the Middle East – we see traces of his shaping mind”.

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Boris Johnson

Boris uber alles

Alphen, Netherlands, December 13. It has been a long night, and I am pretty knackered. It has also been a stunning night. Conservative British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has inflicted the worst defeat on the Labour Party since 1935. Johnson is justifiably triumphant this morning. Indeed, he is now the most dominant figure in British politics since Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher. What does Boris’s victory mean for Britain, and what are its strategic implications?

In his 2014 book, The Churchill Factor, Johnson used the Great Man as a metaphor for his own political and strategic ambitions. Two themes emerged from the pages. First, Churchill’s profound belief in Britain, the British people, and the role Britain could and must play in the world. Second, and equally, Churchill’s awareness that whilst Britain remained a very significant power its days as a truly global power were numbered, that Britain itself was undergoing profound change, and that if Britain was to continue to exert influence a new realism was needed. ‘Boris’ now faces pretty much the same set of issues, turbo-charged by the relative decline in British power and influence since the height of Churchill’s relatively brief but decisive moments in power.

Boris’s domestic challenge

Brexit will now go ahead on 31st January, 2020 in the form of the Withdrawal Agreement. The defining word of 2020 will be ‘complex’. Indeed, I can already see Michel Barnier talking of ‘complexity’ as a metaphor for the very hard trade deal the European Commission will seek to impose on Britain, with particular flash-points over Northern Ireland, Britain’s ongoing commitment to EU funding, and the access of EU-flagged trawlers to British waters.  Johnson will also have to maintain ‘sound money’ and strike a balance between the many expensive promises he made during the election campaign whilst keeping Britain’s deficit and national debt under some form of control.

Johnson’s biggest challenge could well be Scotland. To paraphrase Churchill, whilst the decisive battle for Brexit may be over, another battle for Britain is about to begin. Last night, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Nationalist Party made important gains and have been quick to suggest this morning that they have a mandate for indyref2, another Scottish independence referendum. Boris now has the majority to resist such calls, but Sturgeon also has the mandate to pursue them, even if the SNP failed to gain a majority for independence if one analyses last night’s vote.  And, both Boris and Sturgeon will be acutely aware that with Brussels no longer able to act as an alternative power in the UK, and given the dire state of Scotland’s economy, the road to Scottish independence also became harder last night.

Boris’s strategic challenge

There was a telling moment this week when the second of the Royal Navy’s new 75,000 ton aircraft-carriers, HMS Prince of Wales, was commissioned into the fleet. It was certainly canny politics by the Royal Navy to push through the commissioning of the ship before the election. In many respects, HMS Prince of Wales will be the litmus test of Johnson’s strategic literacy and his ambition for Britain’s place in the world.

In early 2020 Johnson will commission an integrated strategic defence review which will consider the security and defence effects and influence Britain needs to generate. If the review is another exercise in how much threat Britain can ‘afford’ then it will be strategic pretence, that would profoundly damage Britain’s most important strategic relationship, that with the United States, and the NATO Alliance in which that relationship is enshrined.  If, on the other hand, the review marks a genuine effort to consider in the roundest of rounds the still immense resources Britain commits to security and defence then Johnson may, just may, ease the ends, ways and means crisis from which Britain’s armed forces have suffered.

The Boris factor?

To properly understand the victory Boris gained last night one must understand the Yorkshire from which I hail, the heartland of that victory. It may be a generalisation but Yorkshire folk tend to be tolerant and respectful of diversity, whilst deeply proud of their own identity and culture. They only ever loan their support, never grant it.  They are broadly social democratic and proud of the adaptive welfare state sensible Labour once pioneered, and yet understand it must be paid for. They are moderately monarchist, but also deeply suspicious of class and entitlement, and hate any hint of deference. They are grounded and pragmatic, and utterly suspicious of the ‘isms’ to which too much of the unpatriotic British political class are in thrall. They are also deeply patriotic without being nationalistic, and yet contemptuous of those in the London elite who seem to believe Britain is little more than Belgium with nukes.  They understand Britain’s need for close alliances with fellow democracies across both the Atlantic and the Channel. And yet, they are firm in the belief that the politicians who act in their name remain subject to their sanction via the ballot box and that such sanction is reflective of a real relationship between voting and power. In other words, good old fashioned Yorkshire stubbornness and political common sense. Wherever one stood on Brexit, the chaos had to be ended.

If Boris is to succeed he must once again sell the idea of ‘Britain’ to its own people and the wider world. For too long the London elite have abandoned the idea of ‘Britain’ in an effort to accommodate globalism, regionalism, parochial nationalism, and multiculturalism. If there is be any meaning to Boris Johnson’s self-appointed One Nation Toryism it will be the championing of a Britain that is proud of itself as a country, equally comfortable with its diverse self, and sensibly ambitious about a power and its role in the world.

Over to you, Boris.

Julian Lindley-French

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