Proposition – Eleanor Ruxton, Keble College
The last election was, for many, the political equivalent of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Those of us who are neither die-hard Tories nor Corbynistas have been followed by a gnawing sense of unease ever since. Central to our lasting discomfort is an unshakeable sense that this government is too comfortable with reckless decisions.
Despite boasting a team of many supposedly seasoned politicians and advisors, the current Government is characterised by a reckless immaturity. Some of the Government’s more prominent members radiate either political inexperience or a tendency towards misjudgement. This isn’t an attempt to trash baby-faced Rishi Sunak, somebody whose defining moment – a global economic crisis – lies ahead. No, more worrying is the inclusion of those individuals associated (some allegedly) with rash decisions. Hiding behind the guise of ‘strong government’, and under the rumoured patchy and lacklustre leadership of Boris, these characters have been able to thrive.
Let’s begin with everyone’s favourite battle-axe, Priti Patel. Her ability to act rashly was demonstrated in jaw-dropping style back in 2017 when she arranged unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials. More recently, allegations emanating from her civil-servant colleagues have hinted at a tendency towards tantrums characteristic of a moody teen. ‘Why is everyone so fucking useless?’, is something one would expect from the mouth of a 14-year-old, not a Home Secretary (allegedly!). Patel’s clash with the highly experienced Philip Rutnam is not surprising; it represents not just a lack of political maturity but open hostility towards it.
Nowhere did we see this attitude more clearly than in Dominic Cummings’ advertisement for political ‘weirdos’. We all know how that ended. What is revealed to us is a government desperate to portray itself as pulsing with young blood, stronger and more ‘Brexity’ than ever. Anybody who experienced a healthy dose of teenage angst will be familiar with this sort of iconoclasm.
This same attitude was reflected in the Government’s initial response to COVID-19. Desperate to prove its grasp on superior science, Johnson’s team of medical experts began to pursue a policy of ‘herd immunity’, despite Chinese data suggesting it was too risky to do so. The number of elderly people and those with existing health conditions is simply too high for such a strategy to be effective. The ‘don’t tell me what to do’ and ‘I know best’ attitude of Boris’ team has been juvenile at best, and deadly at worst.
But is there potential for the Government to grow-up fast? Certainly, the shift in tone on the issue of social distancing suggests it is learning from its mistakes. Ironically, one of the youngest members of the cabinet, Rishi Sunak, has shown the greatest maturity in his response to the pandemic. At least somebody is prepared to make grown-up decisions. With any luck, this current crisis will act as a coming-of-age, and the Government will look back on its disastrous early years with a new attitude and more stable temperament.
Opposition – William Prescott, University College
With four and a half years to go before the next election, it’s impossible to make any long-term judgment on the Johnson government. Whether it ultimately proves a ‘disaster’ likely will depend on whether, in the short term, it botches the coronavirus outbreak, and, in the longer term, on whether it delivers Brexit without breaking up the United Kingdom.
First, coronavirus. The Government’s handling of this will be judged not on how things look now but on how they will look once the crisis has abated. Controversy over the ‘herd immunity strategy’—devised, it should be noted, by experts and not the PM himself—and questions about whether there has been sufficient testing certainly don’t paint the Government in a favourable light. But the Government still enjoys some goodwill and, as the Chinese and South Korean experiences show, even initial missteps can later be outshone by later successes at containment. On the other hand, if the situation completely spirals out of control, Johnson’s reputation, and that of his government, may never recover.
Domestically, things haven’t always run smoothly, but they’ve hardly been disastrous either. Under Johnson, the Conservatives finally have abandoned the Thatcherite obsession with shrinking the state for the sake of shrinking the state. This return of a more pragmatic Conservatism, no doubt assisted by Johnson’s personal lack of ideological conviction on most issues, is welcome news. That the Tories are now dependent on northern seats is likely to force the Conservatives to make at least some attempt to ‘level-up’ Britain. Moreover, while the controversial Mr Cummings has much influence and some questionable ideas, he does not always call the shots on big issues. The decision to proceed with HS2 clearly demonstrates this.
The greatest long-term challenge for Johnson will be holding the United Kingdom together while delivering the second stage of Brexit. Johnson did secure a major political victory in actually getting Britain out of the EU. When you consider that he inherited a nine-year-old government, a seriously divided party, and a weak parliamentary position, it’s remarkable how he turned his position around. However, these achievements will count for nothing if the United Kingdom disintegrates either under his watch or shortly after his departure. It remains unclear what, if anything, will come out of the talks with the EU over the post-Brexit trade deal. A crash out on WTO terms remains a live possibility, and the economic consequences of this are unknown.
The real problem with Brexit is the potential damage to the union with Scotland. Polls indicate a dangerously high level of support for independence, due largely to 2014 ‘no’ voters who backed ‘remain’ in 2016 switching to ‘yes’. While Johnson will, rightly, block any new referendum for now, this line may be harder to sustain if the nationalists secure a majority at the 2021 Holyrood elections. Even if, as I suspect, Johnson continues to stare down Ms Sturgeon, the parliamentary arithmetic makes a second Scottish independence referendum likely if the Conservatives fail to secure another majority in 2024. Next time, the referendum outcome is far from guaranteed, and much of the blame will be laid at the feet of Johnson for alienating Scottish opinion over Brexit whether or not he remains in Downing Street. A Conservative and Unionist government that kills the union would be a failure of epic proportions.
If the events of the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that politics is totally unpredictable and that you prematurely write off leaders at your peril. Johnson’s enemies risk making a terrible mistake if they’re counting on his imminent self-destruction. They may be in for an unpleasant surprise.