LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ended a wildly tumultuous year with Free Trade Agreement with the European Union Under his belt, a mass vaccination against Covid-19 is underway.
Now that the country is unfettered by most EU rules, he has a political opportunity, once in a generation, to reshape the UK and set its direction after the European Union. The big unknown is what he will do with this opportunity.
Brexit has long been described by some of its defenders as a way to unleash a new dynamic in Britain by shaking off the red tape of Brussels to create a low and free tax in “Singapore on the Thames” – a phrase coined by the former British chief of treasury, Philip Hammond – Sell its goods and services worldwide.
But Mr. Johnson is not a free-market conservative like Margaret Thatcher. For Mr Johnson and many of the Brexit supporters, leaving the European Union was about returning and strengthening legislative powers with Britain’s elected representatives, rather than pursuing specific political goals. The British have so far promised more regulation, not less, ambitious plans to raise the minimum wage and curb greenhouse gas emissions. He has promised more government spending, not less, to “upgrade” the economy which he says is highly dependent on London and southern England.
Such policies enabled him to score a big victory in last year’s elections in territories traditionally hostile to the ruling Conservative Party, while his relentless pursuit of Brexit alienated many of his party’s traditional allies on corporate boards of directors. All these tensions present a mystery: if Mr Johnson does not want another economic revolution akin to that of Thatcher, what does he want to do with the liberation of Britain from Brussels?