Britain’s Choice: Boris or Jeremy?

Has Great Britain’s political future ever looked so grim? The race for leader of the Conservative party will end next week, and the polls decisively favour Boris Johnson, the Leave-engineering populist. Because of this, we have some idea who will face who in the general election in 2022, forgoing a snap election in the meantime. It will be Boris Johnson vs Jeremy Corbyn.

Neither of them are terribly popular. ‘Boris’, as he’s most commonly known (both endearingly and deridingly, depending on who is talking about him) has a reputation as a stuntman and populist. His assumed leadership of the Leave campaign was criticised as inearnest and opportunistic. His approach to policy has been described as that of a weathervane: changing in whichever direction the wind is blowing. He will almost certainly be prime minister up to the general election – succeeding May’s disastrous tenure.

Corbyn, the man he will have to beat for legitimate tenure as prime minister, is unlike him in almost every regard. In no ways a populist, Corbyn has been conversely criticised for his unyielding demeanour and terse answers during interviews. He has been critical of NATO, and ambiguous on Russia and Venezuela: when asked on British TV to condemn Maduro, he equivocated, condemning instead human rights abuses generally. In the 2017 snap general election, he ran on a platform that was progressive and relatively mainstream for the leftwing Labour party, although the party has swung left in recent years as centrists have jumped ship.

Apart from his approach to Brexit, we have a fair idea of what a Britain under Boris would look like. Except for his position on Leave and a hard Brexit, he clings quite close to the Conservative orthodoxy. That means cutting corporate tax and regulatory red tape, in order to generate more money for services (utilising the Tory-favoured euphemism, ‘wealth-creators’ – as opposed to just businesses). Almost all things seem to revolve around this policy: when asked what he would do to support the NHS, or pensions, or roads, he has re-routed to the conservation to the apparent bastion of British solvency: the ‘wealth-creators’. Britain can expect to see invest in infrastructure, better roads and faster internet speeds. Johnson has also floated the idea of raising the threshold for higher income tax, and reducing national insurance contributions for low income people: although he describes both ideas as ‘ambitions’ rather than fixed policies.

An unknown is to what degree Johnson’s nationalism will play a role during his time as prime minister. Whether he will lead the UK down a path similar to the US – stoking the fires of Little Englander sentiment – or whether that piece of his ideology has served his purpose in making him prime minister, and he will forget about it. Boris Johnson has vowed that he will push for introducing an immigration system modelled on a so-called Australian-style points system, resurrecting one of the key promises of the Vote Leave campaign. We can certainly expect more of the same feel-good populism that Boris has become known for: witticisms, swift-asides, and exclamations of a carefully-crafted, bumbling persona.

A Britain under Corbyn would almost certainly swing the opposite way. Corbyn has spoken repeatedly in favour of increasing the minimum wage, scrapping university tuition fees and putting more money into the NHS. A major platform during the snap election was the idea that utilities like the railways would be renationalised. His platform is aggressively progressive: he would institute regulations on industry to make them more green. To save money for these investments, defence spending would be cut and corporation tax increased, as well as stronger regulation and enforcement of tax laws. Cities like London may become more lovable for young people – as rent control is introduced to more housing. His traditionalist, 1970s-Britain approach to the economy will alienate businesses. Inflation will increase as money is sourced to invest in social programs.

The difference between the two men is at its starkest in their foreign policy. Whereas Boris will almost certainly buddy up to the US and Trump, and pursue strong relationships with countries outside of the EU, Corbyn is likely to be more conciliatory. He will make concessions to mend somewhat the damage of Brexit, and likely draw his government closer to his ideological equivalents in Spain, Greece and Russia. As for the US, it is almost certain that Corbyn will alienate the Republicans with one hand, while nurturing the nascent left-wing groups in the Democratic Party with the other. His anti-militancy will antagonise the hawkishness of the US and NATO. It may even withdraw.

Britain will face a choice between two poles. Labour will manipulate its manifesto to appeal to the broadest possible base of Remainers: the young and socially progressive (a daunting prospect perhaps, as this group also votes less). The Tories, under Boris, will cast out as much as possible an image of resolute, ‘still-upper-lips’ Britains, guiding Britain competently through turbulent waters. It will be a true crossroads for the country, and either way, the shocks within the British establishment will continue.