Boris Johnson is looking like a very clever politician these days.
He’s still an unprincipled and supremely self-centered rich guy. As the campaign for parliamentary elections wound down, he pocketed the phone of a reporter who wanted to show him the picture of a 4-year-old sleeping on the floor of an overworked hospital. Then there was the accusation he hid in a walk-in refrigerator to avoid an interview. So statesmanlike.
Like him or not (and even many who voted to keep him on as prime minister don’t like or trust him), his electoral landslide last week would not have been possible without some real political skill. Given his famous lack of discipline and the tough road ahead — including the real possibility he could lose part of the country he governs — it all could evaporate quickly. But even if he hasn’t quite achieved his childhood ambition of being king of the world, the dexterity that got him this far should put a certain leader across the Atlantic to shame. If, of course, that leader was capable of shame.
U.S. pundits, and President Trump himself, were quick to look for lessons in Johnson’s victory that might apply to Trump’s reelection campaign. U.S. and British politics do seem at times to travel on parallel tracks. But it’s all speculation.
Here’s what’s more certain: Trump faces near certain impeachment in the House of Representatives this week. As he plots how he survives it and campaigns for reelection, he shows no indication he will do anything other than what he’s always done: Maximize his base, and try to drown his Democratic opponent in a pit of mud.
Johnson, on the other hand, is digesting his main opponent’s lunch. He’s also staking a claim on dinner and grocery orders for years to come. On behalf of a party whose austerity programs made life much tougher for many, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is staking a claim on large stretches of a beaten-down, post-industrial heartland that Labour took for granted for decades.
In other words, Trump wins by subtraction. Initial indications are that Johnson is at least thinking that long-term success might be about addition.
The reasons why Conservatives did so well in those traditional Labour areas depends on your viewpoint. It has something to do with Parliament’s unending squabbling about how and whether to leave the European Union, and with Johnson’s ability to craft a simple message: “Get Brexit Done.” It helps that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was a dismal candidate. And some of Johnson’s victory, as it was for Trump in 2016, was pretty clearly about something cultural — a feeling among people of being forgotten, of unhappiness with the EU and with immigration.
But look at Johnson’s initial moves after the size of his electoral victory became clear. Instead of trying to tear up government health care programs, as Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress tried to do repeatedly after the 2016 election, Johnson promised to increase funding for the National Health Service.
He went to the north of England, the site of many of those shocking Conservative victories, and whether you believe him or not, he projected a touch of humility in his comments to constituencies where people held their noses while voting for the Tories.
“I can imagine people’s pencils hovering over the ballot paper and wavering before coming down for us and the Conservatives,” he said. “You have changed the Conservative party for the better, and you’ve changed the future of our country for the better.”
Johnson also is reported to be considering drastically increasing infrastructure spending in those areas.
Maybe it’s all pretty words. Still, can you imagine Trump doing any of it?
Having delivered such a huge election victory gives Johnson room to maneuver within his party, pushing it for higher spending on government services. But the Conservatives aren’t going to completely change their stripes, and they can’t count on Labour to keep choosing leaders as unpopular as Corbyn.
Among the clearest challenges is a demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Scotland is heavily in favor of remaining in the EU, and while Johnson was sweeping England, the Conservatives took a drubbing north of the border. Now, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says she will release a blueprint this week for the path toward a second independence vote.
Johnson’s government must agree for it to happen, and the prime minister says he won’t. No prime minister would want to have a 300-year-old union end on their watch. But as a practical matter, it would be hard to keep Scotland in the union if it’s determined to leave. Politically, there might even be an upside for the Conservatives. They would be rid of a part of the country that never votes for them, anyhow. The net effect could be to strengthen their hold on what remains.
What Johnson means, in the words of Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine, is “Trumpism without Trump. A conservative future without an ineffective and polarizing nutjob at the heart of it.” At least for now, he has a mandate to pursue it — and he’ll probably be better at it than Trump himself.