Boris Johnson’s government is not known for strategic thinking, timely and decisive action and laser focus, yet voters in England have decided to support it. Why?

First published in May 2021.

The May 6 elections in England showed something interesting. People want to be team-players. In a pandemic, they want to support their government, particularly when it has tried to do what it can to keep them safe. Accordingly, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party gained approbation — and votes — because its government overcame its bad initial handling of the pandemic and moved to support small businesses, run a furlough scheme and roll out vaccines.

Whatever the eventual fallout of Brexit, Mr Johnson can, for now, bask in the people’s support. The rear view window is fogged up by Boris Newspeak.

(Editor’s note: Newspeak is the fictional language of Oceania, a totalitarian superstate in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.)

Long-term consequences are a different matter. Consider the way things have gone.

After Brexit finally happened, Mr Johnson was forced to admit that new red tape for businesses was a “tragic reality” of leaving the European Union (EU). This, despite falsely insisting when his deal was struck that it included no trade barriers.

Even so, in the first week of Brexit proper — ie, the first week of January 2021 — Mr Johnson remained bullish about the road ahead. “We have a massive opportunity to expand our horizons and to think globally and to think big,” he exulted.

Do we? Perhaps. But there will need to be a lot of the vision thing, strategic thinking about long-term goals, careful charting of a sensible course and then a laser focus on getting to the end of the road. Oh, and the project will need buy-in from the British people, which means they will need both to know the plan and to heartily approve of it.

Unfortunately, Mr Johnson’s government is not known for strategic thinking, timely and decisive action and laser focus.

PM Boris Johnson. | Flickr/Number 10

Instead, it has relied heavily on Boris boosterism, Mr Johnson’s version of Newspeak. On New Year’s Day 2021, for instance, Mr Johnson wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph to mark the proper beginning of the UK’s post-Brexit era. It offered the same sort of turbocharged optimism as the speech he made to congratulate Britain on now being “free” to do trade deals around the world and to “turbocharge” its “ambition to be a science superpower from biosciences to artificial intelligence”. Brexit “freedoms”, said Mr Johnson, will be used to “regulate differently or better”.

After the Brexit deal was finally done, he also tried to revive the “cake and eat it” analogy (even though it was both undiplomatic and impolitic because it annoyed EU leaders). In his Telegraph piece, Mr Johnson acknowledged it may be “unduly provocative” to call the trade deal “a cake-ist treaty”, but gracefully declared, “it is certainly from the patisserie department”.

Beware Brexit Newspeak. It generally works to, as George Orwell said of Newspeak, “diminish the range of thought”. In Brexit Newspeak, up means down; to be stuck (in the UK) means you’re free; global is local and lurching around like crazy without a plan is actually strategic thinking.

In this context, it’s worth noting what Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell wrote in Politico not too long ago about Mr Johnson’s government’s negotiating technique. “I have spent the last 40 years involved in international negotiations of one sort or another,” Mr Powell said, “and I have never seen a British government perform worse than they did in the four years of negotiations that concluded with the Christmas Eve Brexit agreement. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of Brexit, purely in terms of negotiating technique, it is an object lesson in how not to do it.”

But on May 6, English voters didn’t really care. 

Going Further:

Rashmee Roshan Lall, Journalist, World affairs columnist.


[This piece was originally published in Medium and re-published in PMP Magazine on 16 May 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Boris Johnson. | 10 May 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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