Boris Johnson can do what he wants at home for now, but with the EU it’s another matter

The Prime Minister’s unipolar moment won’t last. 

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Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the American conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer declared that the world was in a “unipolar moment”, in which global power was wielded not by competing blocs or interests, but one unchallenged superpower: the United States. The moment lasted until, depending on your perspective, the disastrous war in Iraq that began in 2003, the financial crisis of 2008 or the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Since then, global power politics has become multipolar again: the US is still a superpower, but so too is China, while Russia and the European Union, in different ways, are checks on American influence.

British politics is going through an unprecedented unipolar moment of its own. Boris Johnson’s hegemony is such that Downing Street can seriously contemplate measures that many prime ministers have wanted to enact but lacked the power to do so. One suggestion is to reduce dramatically the number of media special advisers that ministers can deploy, and have them recruited and controlled from Downing Street. Leaders have done the same in opposition but few have had the political capital to carry the change through into office.

Johnson’s dominance is self-reinforcing. The perception that cabinet ministers serve solely at the Prime Minister’s discretion means that junior MPs don’t cluster around them, and Johnson retains the freedom to hire and fire at will. One Conservative MP recently reflected to me that in the life of every other government, there has been at least one cabinet minister whose exit would have forced them to leave a lunch early. In the present cabinet, there is nobody. As one ambitious backbencher puts it: “Ultimately, power is about how long people think you’re going to stick around for, and the only minister worth buying stock in is the Prime Minister.”

Johnson’s unipolar moment won’t last, of course. Events and the wasting effect of years will see to that. It’s one thing to be master of all you survey when Labour is leaderless and trailing in the polls. It’s quite another if, as Westminster veterans expect, the usual pattern of a mid-term lead for the opposition resumes once a new Labour leader is in place. And, at the top of the cabinet table, there are the difficulties of finding a chancellor of the Exchequer who is both ideologically aligned and capable of doing the job. To be able to fire your chancellor and be confident of finding a replacement is a luxury. 

Johnson may be in a unipolar position at Westminster, but the Brexit talks will give him an unwelcome insight into what it is like to be a minister in his own government: in office, but dependent on the whims of the hegemonic presence next door. On 3 February both the British government and the European Commission unveiled their objectives for the upcoming Brexit trade talks. The good news for Johnson is that, unlike Theresa May, he starts off his negotiations having made it clear what he wants – which is why the Commission and the British government both envisage a loose free trade agreement that takes the UK out of the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU, in an arrangement akin to the deal struck between the EU  and Canada.

Where the two sides differ is that the Commission wants the UK to sign up to a degree of regulatory oversight and harmony with the EU far greater than what it demanded of Canada. 

Both the UK and the Commission have a good case. On the European side, negotiators fear that giving the UK the freedom to diverge and near-unlimited access to EU markets will be disastrous. Unlike Canada, which is 4,000 miles away, the UK is right on the EU’s doorstep, and the consequences of giving free rein to a nearby competitor are more immediate and carry greater risk.

On the British side, ministers are reluctant to sign up to so many of the EU’s rules and regulations while also agreeing to a trade deal that would significantly reduce the amount that they trade with the EU. But ultimately, trade negotiations aren’t about locating a midpoint between reasonable claims; they are about the exercise of economic and political power. The EU and the US tend to be very effective at concluding trade deals with their neighbours and with smaller nations, but have failed to complete one with each other. This is because they have the same approach to trade talks: they use their clout to get what they want.

The case for Brexit was that, outside the EU, the UK can seize the benefits of being a mid-sized power, not by being as robust in trade talks as the EU or US, but through greater flexibility. But while British ministers are keen to talk up their willingness to strike a Canada-type deal, they retreat from what that would mean in practice. To be Canada would mean accepting most, if not all, of the US’s demands on agriculture and services, and most, if not all, of the EU’s demands on regulatory alignment. Boris Johnson has vowed to make neither of these concessions. Being a mid-sized power but acting like a bigger one puts the UK not on the path to prosperity but to failure and relative economic decline. 

The alternative is acceding to demands from the two blocs that are not, by any definition, fair. But as any number of worried ministers would privately tell you, life is not fair; that is the reality of power. And Johnson’s unwillingness to use his dominance at home to communicate the realities of the UK’s limited power abroad may well bring his unipolar moment to an abrupt end.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 07 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit

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