Usually when people compare other British politicians to Tony Blair, they mean the politician in question is presentationally slick but supposedly substance light; or that they represent centrism of some flavour; or that they are on the political centrist extreme of their party. I’m about to compare Boris Johnson and Tony Blair in a much more literal sense. The two prime ministers have a lot in common – and not in the ways most people will automatically think. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the current Boris plan = Blair + Brexit. How successfully Johnson combines these two will amount to his legacy.
Let’s first of all break down what Blairism actually was in practice. These to me are the central pillars that defined his time in Number 10: let the City go wild and hope this results in jobs radiating outward in London and creating a high tax base as well as increasing house prices in the capital; take the money you make in London and spend it everywhere else in the country; move to the right on law and order, i.e. “being tough on crime”; devolve power in a piecemeal fashion; keep this economy you’ve established going via large scale immigration. When you compare Blair and Cameron on this basis, Cameron is revealed as being not much like Blair at all. He cut public spending; he was very un-law and ordery for a Tory leader; if anything, he was always fighting against the tide of devolution; he tried, through Theresa May as Home Secretary, to limit immigration, albeit not very successfully. Cameron wasn’t much like Blair at all, not in practice.
It appears now that Blairism has never gone out of political fashion with normal people – other than the immigration bit. Labour moved away from it and the Tories took on some of its clothes but not its practice – hung parliament. Labour moved even further away from it while the Tories tried something new – hung parliament. The Tories get someone who is actually going to follow through with a mostly Blairite agenda – huge majority. I’m not saying it’s that simple and that there weren’t other factors involved, obviously, but it is something to consider given it has become a truism that the country hates everything about what Blair did.
The big question for the UK government boils down to this: can you do Blairism and Brexit at the same time? Particularly if Brexit means limiting migration? Let’s talk it through based on what we currently know.
A big part of Brexit for a lot of the main donors to the various campaigns to both have an EU referendum and then to win it has been to get free from the EU’s financial regulations in order to make the City of London a sort of hedge-fund behemoth. This is where Brexit enriching the City comes in and the first part of Johnson’s Blairism will operate. I have no idea about the real potential for this, but let’s assume for the moment that the hedgies are right and the City does become way bigger outside of the EU’s regulatory orbit. The clear idea is to then use taxes to prop up other parts of the country, except that when Blair did it he was trying to correct for a lot of what happened under Thatcher, whereas Johnson is adding a whole new, unstable element in Brexit. It comes down to an equation: do the gains from the City equal or better the losses from everywhere else, particularly in manufacturing heavy parts of the country? A huge part of how much of a success Johnson can make of Brexit will come down to which way this falls.
The other element of Blairism + Brexit is what the government does on immigration. It is talking a tough line at present, but that doesn’t mean much. I think Johnson may end up saying that what people really wanted when they voted for Brexit was control of immigration, i.e. for targets and processes to be set in Whitehall, not the EU. In other words, we could end up with a situation in which freedom of movement ceases, i.e. no one who isn’t British or Irish has the automatic right to live and work in the UK, and instead just have a very lax immigration regime in which lots of people still enter the country for work. What tends to get missed in commentary on a points based immigration system is that they almost always lead to relatively high immigration. Who knows, perhaps people will be fine with a lot of immigration so long as the British government controls it and most people coming into the country move to London, as that’s where all the jobs and wealth are still sitting.
Much to many on the centre-left’s (and pro-Europeans’) lament, Johnson could make Blairism + Brexit work. Particularly if the official opposition continues to be poor. It just depends on how much the City can reasonably benefit from Brexit – or not.