January 2, 2020

Summer 2029

Those who spent time with Boris Johnson at the end of his premiership all reported that, whatever else was true of the man, he could always see the funny side. He might be watching a decade in office come to an end, but he still took a certain mordant pleasure in the fact that his undoing sprang from the victory that put him in power in the first place.

Some close aides even thought that the departing PM took real pleasure in his final days, settling down in his study — Dilyn wheezing away in the basket at his feet — to write two versions of the last speech he would give in the job. Someone else would lead his party into the 2029 election.

The first text set out the familiar argument, the one he’d made many times before, for accepting the new EW1-US trade partnership. The other argued for rejecting the deal and the restrictions it would put on the nation’s ability to expand its trading relationship with China. “This great nation must always be free to chart its own course — even if some fresh Odysseus will now be steering the vessel,” that speech went.

Having finished both drafts, Johnson hauled himself to his feet, whistled Dilyn up for a last stroll around the garden and stepped out into the roasting sunshine of the summer of 2029 — yet again, the hottest on record. “Been a good run, eh boy?” he asked the dog as they went. “Now, which one of these should I give them?”

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The dog, as usual, said nothing, but everyone else seemed to have an opinion. The question, it was said over and over, was dividing the nation over its place in the world. But it would now fall to someone else to answer it.

Historians, of course, were divided on how good a run it really was. Politically, the Johnson Decade had been close to triumphant: two thumping election victories and something approaching a genuine realignment of the political system; the Conservative Party he left behind bore very little resemblance to the one he’d first joined in the Commons in 2001. It had even acquired a new name, albeit an informal one: the National Party.

On the debit side of Johnson’s historical record was the small matter of which nation that referred to. Since the referendum vote for Scottish independence in 2022, the name “United Kingdom” had been in question, even though the Scots hadn’t entirely left. Equally unfinished was the story of Northern Ireland, since 2026 part of the Irish Federation and subject to the “joint sovereignty” of London and Dublin.

Yet the voters of England had proved remarkably relaxed about the fragmentation of the UK, some reasoning that this was, after all, how democracy was supposed to work: they wanted to leave so they left. A few old-school Conservatives grieved their loss, but rather more of the party saw the departure of the Scots in particular as an electoral gift of epochal proportions.

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And indeed, it had looked for most of the Parliament that began in 2024 as if the Conservatives would canter to a third solid win; Johnson’s party had actually lost a few seats to Emily Thornberry’s Democratic Labour Party, though some of those gains were down to her deft absorption of the Liberal Democrats. As a result, Guildford, Esher and even the disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells had gone red.

Yet more than enough of the Tory gains of 2019 had stayed blue in 2024, even though — or perhaps because — the reasons they voted Conservative in 2019 had faded. “Get Brexit Done!” Johnson had said in 2019 and in a sense, he delivered handily. Less than two months later, the UK’s membership of the EU ended.

The policy wonks and a few independent-minded Conservatives at Westminster pointed out that “leaving” on January 31st was only the start of a new phase of EU wrangling, but not for the first time, they overlooked the retail politics.

Team Johnson managed Brexit Day with the same discipline they employed in 2016 and 2019. Across the country, EU flags were ceremonially hauled down from public buildings (many had only been flown there for the first time a few weeks before, but who notices such details?), Johnson’s face was everywhere under the slogan “Job Done”. The Red Arrows flew over Big Ben trailing red, white and blue smoke and no one was surprised when Downing Street issued instructions to all public buildings — schools, hospitals, council offices — to fly the Union flag for the rest of 2020. (Inevitably, some public bodies objected, generating the sort of attention-grabbing row that worked so well over that £350 million a week.)  And once Brexit was “done”, every poll showed the salience of the European issue dropping steadily. Of course, there remained a vast job to do on trade, but voters didn’t get excited about trade policy — for now, at least.

For the rest of the 2019-24 Parliament, Downing Street mercilessly hammered home the message that the PM was the man who had kept the political system’s promise to the electorate. In a world of spice and conmen, here was a reliable workman who delivered for “his” people and the places where they lived.

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Again, the wonks in the Westminster village said Johnson’s record on his primary challenge, narrowing the productivity gap between the south-east of England and the rest of the UK, was mixed. In his early days, he forced the Treasury to replace its “Green Book” rules that funneled public investment towards the south-east (because that’s where the biggest, quickest returns came) and cheerily borrowed billions to fund “quick win” transport upgrades (bypasses and bridges) that made driving around much of the Midlands and the North just a little more pleasant. Not transformative, perhaps, but was that surprising for a problem 50 years in the making?

Politically, Johnson surprised some by working well with Labour mayors in Manchester and Sheffield, inviting them to attend Cabinet committees as part of a strategy some likened to Gordon Brown’s “Government of All the Talents” schtick.

He even signaled he was prepared to talk about devolving more power to the English regions (“Every town should be a powerhouse”) but progress towards that goal was derailed by the Scots. They voted for independence by — what else? — 52% to 48%. For a time, the vote looked like capsizing the Johnson premiership, but his quick move to argue strongly that Scotland should not return MPs at the next general election framed the debate and captured the imagination of many of “his” voters.

At that election, the flag of St George was displayed at every Johnson rally. The man himself said he was “sad to see our Scottish friends go” but “determined to seize the opportunity to let England be heard properly at last”.

And, in an election that became a fight about who was best attuned to the English, Johnson vs Thornberry wasn’t really much of a contest. Newspaper columnists talking about “English nationalism” couldn’t dent the appeal of Johnson’s New Conservatives. The party won a higher share of the BAME vote than ever before, vindication for Johnson’s insistence that the election and the end of the Union were a chance to build a new idea of “England for all”.

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Having survived and even mastered such events, what could possibly bring down England’s champion?

The downfall, of course, had its roots in Brexit, and the trade freedom it delivered. Getting a really significant trade deal with the US became the prime focus of British trade and even foreign policy, but it did not come quickly. The re-elected President Trump, to the surprise of precisely no-one, proved less generous in negotiation than he had sounded before formal talks began. When Congress got involved, the talks got all the more painful.

And then, the real trouble started. The 2024 general election was followed by a more surprising outcome: the election of President Donald Trump — Jnr. And his running mate, Donald J Trump. Having failed to strike out the 22nd Amendment limiting a president to two terms, the Trumps decided to go around it, having noted that the amendment was, to say the least, ambiguous about what happens if a two-term president is then elected VP.

And the third act of the Trump drama shook the world, escalating the simmering trade war with China to boiling point. And that meant some harsh choices for US allies. As the younger Trump put to Johnson at a meeting in early 2028: “We’re in a fight and you’re either with us or against us.”

In practical terms, that eventually boiled down to a simple choice for Johnson and what remained of the UK: impose “punitive” tariffs on China, or accept that there would be no US trade deal and quite possibly no trade of any sort, since the US would apply tariffs to English goods and services.

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Given the scale of Chinese trade and investment with the UK by the later days of the 2020s, this was no small choice. A leaked UK Joint Intelligence Committee assessment that Chinese “non-state actors” acting at the direction of Beijing could “cripple” the UK’s communications network and wider economy “within 24 hours” sharpened the choice to a razor’s edge.

And this is how we leave Boris Johnson, preparing to end a decade in power with a bit of valedictory oratory on the parched yellow grass of Downing Street. The leader of a nation that was smaller yet prouder than when he found it, and about to make a choice he made possible: between two global trade superpowers for whom most voters held little affection. It is also a nation consumed with a new debate over the next question that followed from that harsh choice: whether or not to seek to rejoin the European Union.

“Glad some other bugger has to sort that one out,” the departing PM muttered to his faithful dog as they stepped out into the gardens.

FOOTNOTES
  1.  England/Wales

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