On Brexit, there's a big question that Boris Johnson hasn't answered

The Prime Minister's ambitions on trade are incompatible with his policies on state aid – and arguably his new electoral coalition.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Boris Johnson made two seemingly contradictory promises this morning. At a press conference in Westminster, the Prime Minister announced that the next Conservative administration would overhaul state aid rules in order to make it "faster and easier for the government to intervene to protect jobs when an industry is in trouble”.

When quizzed on his pledge by reporters, however, Johnson added an additional rider: that he wanted to maintain a “level playing field” with the EU rather than use his new state aid regime to distort competition. Only two days ago did Michel Barnier say that the UK must do just that if it wants to secure a free trade deal with the EU. 

There is an obvious tension between the two pledges. If Johnson’s new state aid rules are to be a meaningful departure from those imposed by Brussels, then they will necessarily mean an uneven playing field for UK-EU trade – at least by Barnier’s standards. And if they are to be sacrificed or diluted in pursuit of comprehensive trade deals not just with Europe, but with the US and other economies, then what is the point of the policy?

That question strikes at the heart of the big, undercovered story of this election. Look at Boris Johnson’s cabinet and parse his rhetoric on post-Brexit Britain’s trading relationship and one has to conclude that its vision is for high divergence from EU rules – Canada-style – followed by a course of Thatcherism on steroids. 

But pledges like today’s would preclude his government from doing anything like it. That is doubly true given the seats that will make up its majority. If your parliamentary party runs through Ashfield, Bolsover and Leigh, then there is a clear political incentive – if not obligation – for an altogether more statist, even dirigist economic programme.

Which is it to be? Perhaps the most striking thing about this election is that we just don’t know – and there has been very little pressure on Johnson to reveal the answer.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.