The hullabaloo surrounding Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has exercised eyebrows throughout his career trajectory. A quick online search and a ‘Terrifying Boris Quotes’ headline flashes up on my screen. But who is our new Prime Minister? Some complain that he is a flip-flopping populist. They point to his inconsistent views over Europe as irrefutable proof. Originally, he’s seen sailing through the pro-European sea with yellow stars sparkling in his hair: “This is a market on our doorstep, ready for further exploitation by British firms. The membership fee seems rather small for all that access. Why are we so determined to turn our back on it?”. Roll on a few months and he is accused of wanton destruction by graffitiing a bus on route to Brexit Street: “there is simply no need in the 21st century to be part of a federal government in Brussels that is imitated nowhere else on Earth. It was a noble idea for its time but it is no longer right for this country”. Could the real Boris please stand up? Or is he just a populist who gingerly negotiates the shifting political sands in pursuit of that oasis of power? If so, I should stop here as any economic comment becomes tittle-tattle. However, I reject this accusation. Instead, I will argue that through political economy we can observe coherency in his posturing. I’ll use that to then initiate the most dangerous of economic method: prediction.
An initial perusal of his MP voting record indicates a man who seemingly reveres economic liberalism. From tax cuts to busting over-regulation of the financial sector, he lauds the supremacy of the entrepreneur. Analysing the impact of globalisation, he doesn’t shy away from any perceived negative aftereffects: “Britain is competing in an increasingly impatient and globalised economy, in which the competition is getting ever stiffer. No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates; and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual”. Income inequality offers no challenge to deny trade liberalisation. Economic rationality demands that we continue to steam full-ahead. Why then would he even entertain a ‘No Deal Brexit’, where trade liberalisation gains would slip through our fingers?
The crux is that we are looking in the wrong direction. Economic liberalism is of secondary importance to Boris. There will be emphasis on free markets and on protecting private property rights by limiting government. But it is largely a bluff. His poker hand rests instead on a ‘realist’ political economic perspective where economic rationality concepts are easily retired. Emphasis is instead on the national interest and sustaining Britain’s position as a world leader. Boris isn’t therefore just a Churchill biographer, he is also invoking the great man’s red, white and blue. Take his 2014 quote: “The way things are going now, it is highly likely that this country will be the middle of this century be the most powerful economy in the European Union, if we are still members, which I suspect we will be, we will be leading”. Rather than a celebration of how economic integration maximises economic activity, we have an acknowledgment of a professed British superiority. Support for cooperative institutions, such as the EU, is a matter of convenience. Such support is inevitably brittle. Bilateralism will offer fertile alternatives to pursue state interests. There are old alliances to rekindle; special relationships to coax. There is a switch of emphasis towards the US and our Commonwealth friends, allowing national sovereignty to shine: “I also believe we should have absolutely no shame or embarrassment in championing our ideals around the world and in this era of dithering and dubitation. This should be the message of global Britain to the world: that we stick up for free markets as vigorously as we stick up for democracy and human rights and when all is said and done, my friends – and I know that not everyone will agree with this, but what the hell – I believe that vote on June 23 was for economic freedom and political freedom as well”.
Some might grumble that such an outlook lacks feasibility. Surely the European choir, the most important free trade area in the world, sings louder than Britain alone? Surely Britain will struggle with American negotiators decked in ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball caps? And, given the economic losses from leaving the EU, surely the trend of waning British influence will continue? There is paradoxically no need to consider these questions. Within the realist perspective, nationalism becomes a comfort blanket that is as reliable as the tide. Ignore it and you will watch your sand castle empire get swamped. It is the rise of the Brexit Party which is the existential threat: deliver Brexit or face oblivion. A ‘No Deal Brexit’ seemingly lacks logic, but that perspective is derived by only focusing on economic rationality.
‘No Deal Brexit’ qualms have amplified. This may be where our predictions end. It is possible that, via any ‘vote of no confidence’ threat, Boris loses his poker hand and his government collapses. But what if his government survives? For many politicians, and that arguably includes Labour MPs, the devil you know is preferable to a social democratic Corbyn-led alternative. On the surface, it would be business as usual. The British government will continue to invest in its nuclear deterrence. There will be sustained increases in military expenditure. But ultimately the ambition has changed. This isn’t about public good delivery within an uncertain world which embraces liberalism. It is a switch to a realist perspective where Britain’s place on UN’s top table is everything. It is a Churchillian world where, unless you acknowledge this sea change, policy choice can appear as an unfathomable betrayal of economic rationality.