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Boris Johnson, the Antithesis of Margaret Thatcher?

Boris Johnson, the Antithesis of Margaret Thatcher?
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

They may have led the same political party, but everything else places Boris Johnson as the polar opposite of his revered Conservative predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. Her determination serves to underline his own amateurism. And although Johnson will inevitably go down in British history, it will not necessarily be for the right reasons, writes Dominique Moisi.

On the eve of Britain’s departure from the European Union, the recent release of the fourth season of The Crown raises questions over the influence that series such as this have on contemporary politics. In this particular case, it is difficult not to see the show’s portrayal of the “Thatcher Years” as an implicit criticism of the “Johnson Years.”

Johnson seems to see himself as a modern-day Churchill, a personal hero of his to the extent that Johnson wrote a biography of the wartime leader. In fact, in The Crown, he appears as the absolute antithesis of Thatcher: a ‘straw man’, versus the ‘Iron Lady.’ 

Their respective hairstyles exemplify their contrasting personalities. Thatcher’s resolute hairstyle encapsulates her desire for absolute control. Johnson’s hairstyle (an effort, some rumor-mongers claim, to cover up his increasing baldness), on the contrary, conveys the non-conformism and eccentricity that is characteristic of British social elites: on the one hand, a hard-working petit bourgeois and, on the other, a member of the established British upper-class.

Johnson’s Amateurism

Another major difference is in the roles of their respective partners. Denis Thatcher was fully at his wife’s service. Conversely, it is felt by some that Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancée, has a real influence on the decisions made within 10 Downing Street. Additionally, the depiction of Thatcher in The Crown—from her decisiveness in the Falklands War to her determination to force through massive changes on to the very fabric of British society—demonstrate the weaknesses, and even perhaps the amateurism, of the current Prime Minister. We can see that the political and societal context into which the fourth season of The Crown has been released is not altogether incidental.

Their respective hairstyles exemplify their contrasting personalities: [...] on the one hand, a hard-working petit bourgeois and, on the other, a member of the established British upper-class.

With only a few weeks to go before Britain’s final departure from the EU, there is certainly a willingness among my British friends to hold onto hopes of a rational outcome. The next few weeks will be particularly difficult, they tell me. There will be increasing tension, with each side more than prepared to blame the other for any failure. However, as we get closer to the exit date, reason and compromise will likely prevail over emotion. Both sides—the British, even more so than the Europeans—simply have too much to lose by failing to reach an agreement.

But is this optimism justified? Are my friends not the same people who believed, in 2016, that a ‘Leave’ victory in the referendum was impossible?

Noxious climate

Caution is all the more necessary precisely because Johnson’s management is anything but controlled, as demonstrated by his actions with regards to both Brexit and Covid-19. The word most often used is "chaos." It is almost as if the Conservative Party has overtaken the Labour Party in their public displays of division and contradiction. The recent departure of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s éminence grise, was only the latest and most dramatic illustration of the poisonous climate within the UK government and the Conservative Party at large. At a time when the Labour opposition has finally found a competent, moderate and responsible leader in Keir Starmer, it is the Conservative Party that appears to be disintegrating. But the next election— barring unforeseen circumstances—will not be happening for a long time, and much can happen in the next four years.

Internationally, Donald Trump’s defeat is—at least symbolically—a setback for Johnson. However, the ‘closeness’ between the two should not be exaggerated as, apart from their populist leanings and their hair color, they share very little in terms of culture, education and background. The Prime Minister suffers from his weakness and indecisiveness, and the outgoing President from his over-forcefulness.

What really weakens Britain’s position today is not Trump’s departure from the White House, but that of the UK from the European Union. After Brexit, Joe Biden will be even more tempted to look first to Berlin and, ideally for us Frenchmen, towards the Franco-German power base. Britain’s influence is shrinking like a skin of sorrow and Brexit, like a magnifying mirror, highlights its intrinsic limitations and weaknesses.

We sometimes hear that the UK considers Australia as a potential business model, but this cannot be taken seriously. As Martin Wolf noted in a recent Financial Times article, Australia exports only 3% of its goods to the European Union. Its key market is actually China, accounting for 38% of its exports. In the case of Great Britain, it’s almost the exact opposite, with 46% of UK exports going to the European Union.

A ‘special’ relationship that’s not so special anymore

What really weakens Britain’s position today is not Trump’s departure from the White House, but that of the UK from the European Union.

In short, an hour of reckoning is approaching for Britain. Its ‘special’ relationship with the United States is, in reality, only special to one side, the UK. Seen from Washington, the United Kingdom is just one partner among many others - the Second World War ended seventy-five years ago – and far behind the European Union, or even Germany herself. In Asia, London will have to choose between principles, such as defending Hong Kong and UK economic interests. Can she unilaterally resist Beijing’s actions? Europe is already struggling in efforts to present a united front against China, but particularly when it comes to trade (if not technology), if Europeans do manage to work together, they can make a difference. This is not the case for Great Britain, and its weaknesses will appear even greater if Scotland decides to leave the United Kingdom.

The UK thus appears increasingly isolated without and divided within. In this context, everything indicates that Johnson, like Thatcher, will go down in history as one of the most important prime ministers in Britain’s post-war history, but for very different reasons—Thatcher shook the country awake, whereas Johnson is in the process of misplacing and weakening its place in the world.



Courtesy of  Les Echos, where the article was published on 21/11/2020.

Copyright : Leon Neal / POOL / AFP

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