Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation was long in coming, and in the end hardly a big surprise. Conservative Party MPs have for some time been running scared that the series of disasters involving Boris would result in a defeat in the polls.
For South Africa and much of the world, his resignation, on its own, hardly matters. It will not alter the world’s relations with the UK, although the country will probably be taken more seriously with a Prime Minister that has greater credibility.
What really matters about the Johnson eviction is the issue of accountability for the damage he has done, and how the UK is under mounting pressure to deal with its serious longer-term problems.
For all the present hostility toward Johnson, his resignation was a good example of accountability at work. There are lessons for South Africa. The UK system has the advantage that a Prime Minister can be quickly turned out of office. Unlike in the US where it would take an election or impeachment to replace a President, in the UK, a Prime Minister can be quickly booted out. The threat of a Parliamentary vote of no-confidence or just being informed that he cannot carry a majority of his own MPs is sufficient to ensure an eviction. That can be convenient, but one of the disadvantages is that the new Prime Minster is only selected by a small group rather than the country, in such circumstances.
If post-1994 South Africa had a strong tradition of accountability, many of our politicians would have speedily resigned. It took time to evict Zuma, and had there been a lot more accountability in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa might have been forced to resign as soon as the Phala Phala robbery was even alleged. Ease of replacement of the man at the top is an important attribute of democracy. Lack of ANC accountability prevents this mechanism from being exercised.
The immediate cause of Johnson’s loss of support was his appointment of a whip, an MP who ensures party discipline in Parliament, who had allegedly groped men while drunk. Johnson’s partying while the country was locked down, and then lying about it had already raised ethical issues.
Arguably. had Boris Johnson been able to offer policies of substance while also holding parties during lockdown, the support for his eviction would not have been so forceful. His lack of substance on policy, his arrogance, pretentious behaviour, and seeing everything as a game are what accelerated his fall. Towards the end, everything about Boris became a lot clearer. That has to call into question a system which had not seen through him.
Johnson cynically used Brexit to rise to power. Ahead of the Brexit referendum he prepared two articles – one pro-Brexit, the other against. Ultimately, he used the Brexit campaign as a launch pad to become Prime Minister. Two seemingly endless wars with no quick victory in sight in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a national worry about immigrants flooding in, damaged national self-confidence and raised fear. His great good luck had been that he faced a Labour party led by an extreme left winger, who managed to lose support in areas which had traditionally been unwavering in backing Labour.
Johnson saw the national mood of worry and fear as his pathway to power. He managed to build his power base on many of the same factors as Trump.
To give him credit, his one achievement has been to support Ukraine. Some of Johnson’s critics charge him with using the Ukraine crisis to cling to power. While UK support for Ukraine might have been likely, it is hardly the case that it was inevitable.
Johnson has long been full of slogans and short of ideas. The idea of “levelling up”, the core of the Conservative Party manifesto in 2019, sounded good as a means of dealing with poverty and poor outcomes in health, education, and housing, but it’s hardly been a success. That’s largely due to lack of resources, lack of commitment, and poor targeting, say the critics.
There is now little doubt about the damage his appetite for power has done.
Brexit has done immense damage to the UK and will do a lot more. Primarily, it has damaged the economy, and diminished the UK as a global power. The country is increasingly paying the cost of Boris and Brexit. Leaving the world’s largest free trade bloc had to hit the UK’s economic prospects. Its per capita income has grown at less than half of the more than eight percent rise in the European per capita income since the 2016 referendum on EU membership.
Membership of the European Union in 1973 brought about years of productivity increases due to higher rates of competition and investment, and ultimately growth. This will be a big missing factor. One of the most compelling factors for international firms to invest in a UK manufacturing plant was to serve the European market.
The paperwork around taking up longer-term residency has meant bright Europeans have returned home or looked elsewhere for jobs. One of the reasons for the current labour shortage is that many Europeans simply did not see a future in the country. The end of European Union support for scientific research has meant European researchers have left the UK for greener pastures.
And Britain’s power in the world has substantially declined. The UK Prime Minister can no longer attend monthly meetings with European Union leaders. This provided a unique opportunity to persuade and cajole other leaders. Rejecting a major international treaty has also damaged trust in the UK. And the Brexit slogan of getting back control has proved to be nonsense. In order to do business with Europe, British firms find that they must adhere to European requirements. Back when it was a member, the UK was a in a position to influence these regulations.
The country may not be in a full-blown recession, as wages will increase and tax cuts could help keep up disposable income. And as luck would have it, the UK is not nearly as dependent, as is much of Europe, on Russian oil and gas and does not have to try and reorient its energy supplies. Economists are divided on whether the country will experience a deep recession, but the possible quadrupling in home heating costs in the winter will push up inflation and is bound to cause deep dissatisfaction.
There are mounting predictions of riots sparked by fast-rising energy prices, food price inflation, and growing frustration with the National Health Service. To ease the impact of rising prices, the government may have to buy social peace with a new round of handouts.
Productivity growth is unexceptional in the UK and the country is not a technology leader. The “Wimbledon effect”, which brings international players to London due to good governance and services and bolsters its position as a world financial centre helps. But this is hardly enough to build a post-Brexit super-economy. And neither is muddling through.