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by David Laws 26th July, 2019
3 min read

UK’s New Government: What Do We Now Know? Analysis from David Laws

It’s only a matter of days into the new Boris Johnson government. What do we now know about the direction that Boris Johnson has set?

It’s a whole new government, not just a reshuffle

As we have ourselves long expected, the UK has an entirely new government, not merely a lightly reshuffled top team. We have a new PM, with a very different personality to that of Theresa May. Half the previous Cabinet has been sacked, and of those who remain in power most have changed jobs. The new administration is much more Eurosceptic, much less pragmatic, much more unpredictable.

Heading towards a deal or an election?

Mr. Johnson isn’t remotely interested in some “government of all the talents”, that will seek to keep everyone on board. Those who failed to back him, and have taken a different view on Brexit,  have been unceremoniously dumped. Even Jeremy Hunt, the runner up in the Tory leadership contest, has been forced into resignation.

Back into government comes one of the most controversial special advisers ever to be given a job in Whitehall – Dominic Cummings, the ultimate “outsider”, who is now inside the Number 10 tent. This government is going to look, feel and act very differently to the “steady as she goes” May administration.

Crucially, the many Tory MPs who Boris has now made an enemy of means that Parliament as a whole is less likely than ever to vote to approve a “No Deal Brexit”. Mr. Johnson is gambling on doing a deal with the EU, or having to fight an Autumn election.

But will the EU play ball?

To the extent that this government does have a coherent Brexit strategy – and this should not be taken for granted – it is now getting clearer what this may be. Mr. Johnson knows he is unlikely to be able to get “No Deal” through Parliament, and he must know that “shutting down” Parliament would be deeply controversial, and would draw the Queen into politics in a way that Buckingham Palace would strongly resist.

Nor can his first choice be to risk an election after just a few weeks in the job. Bluntly, he wants a deal. He cannot renegotiate an entirely new deal by his Brexit departure date of 31st October. So he will seek limited changes to overcome the problems inherent in the Irish backstop, and is likely to seek other changes that will seek to free up the UK to strike its own trade deals after the transition period. Boris is gambling on being able to find solutions that the Irish government, the DUP, the Tory Party and the EU will all be willing to sign up to.

He seems to believe he can find the compromises that will meet everyone’s bottom lines, but to do this he is gambling that the Irish government and the EU will prefer to make concessions than risk a “hard” Brexit. We don’t yet know if this judgement is correct.

If Boris Johnson is wrong, we could be heading fast towards a General Election in the Autumn, or a second referendum, with the former more likely than the latter.

A welcome return of domestic policy, but is there actually a plan?

We know that Mr. Johnson has sketched out the basis of a domestic programme – more transport infrastructure investment and more broadband; a solution on “social care funding”; extra cash for the lowest funded schools; a lightening of taxes and some regulations to attract business to the UK; and probably a more pragmatic attitude to immigration than Theresa May favoured.

What we don’t know, as on Europe, is whether Mr. Johnson has a plan that is really thought through, and can work. There has been a lot of talk of spending commitments, but saying you will fix social care funding is easier said than done. If you cut the school funding gap, do you just widen the school attainment gap between rich and poor children? What about Heathrow? And High Speed 2? These are all complex issues.

Has Mr. Johnson and his team got workable answers, or are they just “winging it”?

In the months ahead, we will get our answers.

 

David Laws is a former minister and Strategic Adviser to GK Strategy.

If you would like to discuss the contents of this article, or how GK might be able to help you understand and engage with the new government, we would be delighted to hear from you. Please contact: davidl@gkstrategy.com

 

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