The story is that when four years old and asked what he wanted to be, Boris Johnson replied, ‘world king’. Although only prime minister of the United Kingdom, Boris is ‘king’ of the UK’s centre-right Conservative party.
Called ‘the Boss’ by his government team, Boris gave his speech at the Conservative party conference (3 to 6 October) from his own purpose-built auditorium set up inside Manchester’s conference centre. This was the Conservative party’s first in-person conference since their election victory in 2019. They wanted to feel good and Boris did not disappoint. No one heckled Boris as they had the Labour party leader Keir Starmer a week earlier. Boris’ speech had plenty of jokes and no one seemed to mind or even notice that the prime minster said nothing important.
Outside the auditorium, Johnson’s speech was criticised as being divorced from reality given the difficulties the UK currently faces. Prices are rising across Europe as supply chains, including those for energy, struggle to recover from the pandemic and extreme weather events. The situation in the UK is being made worse by additional bureaucracy and labour shortages caused by Brexit (the UK’s exit from the European Union). Labour shortages in agriculture, meat processing and transport have resulted in unpicked fruit left to rot, unprofitable pigs being slaughtered, and some shelves being empty in supermarkets.
In his speech, Johnson said that labour shortages caused by Brexit would lead to higher wages and enable the UK to develop the type of high-wage, highly-skilled and high-productivity economy that it could not do as a member of the EU. Business leaders are not convinced and the Adam Smith Institute, a right-wing think tank, called Johnson’s speech ‘economically illiterate’.
Wages are rising for some, but many in the UK are struggling to pay their bills. Johnson, in his speech, praised the doctors and nurses of the UK’s National Health Service who saved his life after he caught Covid. Nurses, however, are not so happy. They say that the governments offer of a 3% pay rise (the original offer was 1%) is ‘unacceptable’ and, for the first time ever, are considering a national strike.
On the day of Johnson’s speech, his government ended the £20 a-week increase to ‘universal credit’, the financial support given to the UK’s poorest families, which was introduced to help them during the pandemic. Research by York University suggests the loss of the money will mean that 3.4 million households will be unable to pay higher energy bills this winter unless they spendless on food. Johnson says that the increase in universal credit was only temporary and that work is the best way out of poverty. More than 5.8 million people in Britain claim universal credit, nearly 40% of them are already working.
‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’ – King Henry IV, part two, by William Shakespeare
One of King Henry IV’s many troubles were the constant plots to overthrow him, after he took the throne by force from King Richard II. Although ‘king’ of his party, Johnson is not universally popular. Many in the party are small state, low-tax, Thatcherite conservatives who worry about where Johnson’s populism is taking them. Recent tax rises to fund social care, which will hurt younger and lower-paid workers, have led to concerns that the Conservatives are becoming the party of ‘tax and spend’, an election winning accusation they have long made against the centre-left Labour party.
There is also concern about Johnson’s plans to address inequalities in the UK. In his speech, Johnson spoke about ’levelling up’ by creating more high-quality job opportunities outside London and investing in transport links and infrastructure in the north of England, in Scotland and Wales. Johnson gave no specific plans about how to achieve ‘levelling up’, how much it may cost, or how a government committed to reducing debt and with no room for further tax increases will pay for it.
Conservatives are, though, very pragmatic. Pro-Europeans stayed with their party despite Brexit because what really matters is to win power. ‘King’ Boris faces no immediate threats to his leadership from within his party. The size of his election victory in 2019 makes it very difficult for the Conservatives to lose the next election and, in any event, the Labour party opposition has yet to convince the British people that it is ready to govern. Johnson also has the mainly right-wing British press on his side.
However, like any leader, Johnson is vulnerable to events. He survived the Covid pandemic politically due to the speedy roll out of a British developed vaccine. But there are still more than 150,000 Covid cases and 500 deaths a week in the UK, much higher than in many other European countries.
The squeeze on living standards and shortages, made worse by Brexit, are real daily experiences for many people in the UK. There will be more problems if the UK finds itself in a trade war with the EU given the fierce dispute about controls on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which were agreed when the UK left the EU. And it should not be forgotten that Scotland’s future in the UK also remains uncertain. Henry IV survived, but kings who have told their people to eat cake when there is none have sometimes lost their heads.