The last Prime Minister of the Union?

Last week, Boris Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, but concerns have been voiced about the potential consequences of his premiership for the Union. Michael Kenny assesses the validity of those concerns and how they might be alleviated.  

‘The last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’. This damning, but also hopeful, judgement of the implications of a Boris Johnson premiership from the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford, expresses a sentiment that is widely held in UK politics, and is not confined to Scottish nationalist circles.

In fact, this particular outcome is very unlikely given how long – as we are currently learning – it takes countries to leave unions of which they are members. But it is undoubtedly true that his tenure in office will have a very significant impact upon the increasingly strained internal politics of the union, and could well ignite major political crises about the constitutional positions of Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is highly unlikely that Johnson will be the PM who oversees the break-up of Britain; but he may well go down in history as the catalyst for its dissolution.

So what does Johnson have to do to make sure that he does not become the leader who sends the UK to the brink?

In his election campaign he joined some of the other contenders in signalling his awareness of the need for the Union to be given a much higher priority in the thinking and policies emanating from Whitehall and Westminster. And this is certainly not a bad place from which to start. But there is a real risk that the kind of ‘hyper-unionism’ which, as our research shows, has emerged in official and political circles as an assertive response to heightened anxieties about the prospects of the UK, could well — if done without strategy or sensitivity — rebound on its author, deepening an ingrained scepticism about UK politicians and the central state in the outer parts of the UK.

The most immediate and pressing challenge he will face in this area arises in the context of negotiations about the backstop and the Irish border that will surface in the course of efforts to secure a new Withdrawal Agreement from the EU.

Showing an authentic commitment to keeping the border open whilst presenting ‘no deal’ as a serious policy option is an extremely hard — and perhaps impossible — act to pull off. Johnson and his team need to engage much more deeply and convincingly with the various stakeholders on these issues, establishing a new tenor in relations with the Irish government and engaging fully with the very real fears of the bulk of Northern Irish citizens. The new government needs to commit itself publicly to making the restoration of government at Stormont a political priority. Crashing out of the EU without a deal at a time when devolution in the North is not operative, creates the very real prospect of a return to direct rule by the British state – an outcome with negligible political gain, and, potentially, a considerable human, and economic, cost.

In Scotland too, he needs to be deft and strategically minded, and appreciate that his personal style and free-market Toryism play particularly badly north of the border. He would be well advised to ensure that other more respected figures take the lead in engaging with the devolved administrations, and find ways of signalling that Ruth Davidson calls the shots for the Conservatives in Scotland. He would do well also to rediscover the kind of pro-devolution mindset he developed in his time as Mayor of London, and commit his administration wholeheartedly to a more engaged and respectful relationship with governments in other parts of the UK, and to the ongoing review of intergovernmental relations.

The one part of the Union where Johnson appears on a firmer footing is England, where the majority of those living outside London supported for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Yet, there too he faces formidable potential challenges. The most obvious risk facing him is that he will shortly be engaging in the complex politics of negotiation and deal-making, and will need to sell the results of his efforts both to a parliament in which he does not have a majority and an English public that is primed to scepticism of politicians whose delivery on this question does not match what they have promised. More than this, research suggests that the English have also come to acquire a much stronger sense of identity and collective interest — a trend that Johnson himself has been keen, at times, to identify himself with.

Most of the political commentary on him has focused exclusively on the arithmetical challenges he faces in the Commons. But for Johnson, who has been elected on the basis of his supposed ability to connect with audiences outside Westminster, the judgements formed by the wider English audience will be crucial. New polling published by John Denham shows that 85% of those who voted Conservative in 2017 want a political party to stand up for England within the Union, but many of these voters are currently more likely to see the Brexit Party playing that role.

If he comes to be viewed as yet another Prime Minister who seems far more ready to bend to the sensibilities and rights of the smaller nations at the expense of the English, and is neglectful of the deep sense of disenchantment in those left-behind communities that want a much better deal from the state, his political honeymoon will be extremely short-lived.

Should Johnson stumble in any one of these minefields he will quickly find that his upbeat tone and soundbites about the ‘awesome foursome’ are far from enough to keep the union together.

About the author

Michael Kenny is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, and co-Investigator on the ESRC-funded project, Between Two Unions: the Constitutional Future of the Islands after Brexit.