Boris Johnson is a man of many faces. In 2008, whilst first running to become London mayor, he emphasised his socially liberal policies on issues such as gay rights and youth unemployment. After 2010 he championed David Cameron’s austerity programme as the only route out of the austerity crisis. In 2019 he opened the cash taps as COVID-19 began to shut life down.
All these guises made those in Westminster believe that Johnson stood for nothing. That he was nothing but an opportunist who would say anything to win. So long as he won, and he did, that didn’t matter. But could everybody be wrong?
The recent vote on a National Insurance tax rise was just one example of a number of remarkably left-wing economic policies that have surprised commentators. Upon becoming Prime Minister in 2019, many believed that the man entering Number 10 would return the Conservative Party to the neoliberal roots that originally took hold under Thatcher.
Despite this, Johnson has pressed ahead with relatively progressive economic reforms. The pandemic furlough scheme delivered some of the biggest government expenditure in peacetime - roughly equivalent to £14 billion a month. Eat Out to Help Out saw huge investment in the hospitality industry, with the state effectively paying for people’s meals. Universal Credit was temporarily increased by £20 a month - something that would be unthinkable from Thatcher, even during a national crisis.
Johnson has faced down those on his backbenches who bemoan the astronomical sums the government is spending to keep the economy afloat. Their criticism has, strangely, failed to take hold amongst the general public. Most people are comfortable with the government spending large amounts of money right now, and over a third are happy to pay more tax in order to fund it.
The rise in National Insurance seems to have entrenched Johnson’s position. Social care was a problem long before the pandemic began - shown by his promise to find a solution in July 2019. Whilst perhaps lacking in creativity, the tax rise at least demonstrates a willingness from the government to make hard and unpopular decisions that may hurt household incomes.
After two years, Johnson’s economic policies signal the emergence of a coherent political philosophy. However, government is not just about money. More authoritarian positions have been taken on crime and immigration. Voter ID laws have been introduced. Policing of the English Channel has been stepped up. Radical environmentalism is a top priority with the coming UK presidency of COP26. It is now easier to see where he stands and what his priorities are.
Johnsonism leaves the Labour Party in a political quandary. It cannot attack the government for raising taxes, because Keir Starmer has promised to do precisely the same if he wins power. They can criticise the Tories for raising taxes on the wrong people, but proposals for a so-called ‘wealth tax’ have been rejected by the electorate time and time again. Johnson’s melding of green, blue and red politics has bamboozled his opponents, leaving them scrambling to keep up.
Labour has failed to craft a viable and popular alternative to the government. On the other hand, Johnson has successfully painted Labour as the flip-flop party - with nothing meaningful to say and nobody credible to say it. Time is running out before the reputation cements itself.
It is yet to be seen how history will treat Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Of all his predecessors, the one he most closely resembles is not even a Conservative. The current PM seems just marginally to the right of Tony Blair on social issues, and just marginally to the left of him on economics. Both took strong stances on crime and punishment, and both put up National Insurance to help pay for the NHS. Both emphasise the environment as a key issue. Aside from foreign policy, both take a pragmatic approach to the domestic issues they face. While Blair’s legacy has been tarnished by Iraq, the legacy of Johnsonism is only just coming into view.