Two years as PM: Boris Johnson's ambitions to rebuild Britain are the great challenge

Making Britain a technology superpower can secure UK leader’s reputation

Being the person responsible for the nation’s greatest divorce is not the epitaph Boris Johnson wants once his premiership ends.

It is something the British leader will be contemplating when he completes two years in office today with a view to building an enduring legacy that will propel him into the higher tier of prime ministers.

There is an opportunity to replicate his hero Winston Churchill and lead his country out of its darkest hour since the Second World War into sunlit uplands. It is just a question of what monuments he chooses to wager political capital on to create an enduring legacy.

The unique circumstances of the pandemic and Brexit have strangely given him a blank canvas upon which to draw a new future for Britain.

First, he has to navigate Britain through the crisis and that is by no means guaranteed with the infections spiralling just as lockdown restrictions ease. But by autumn it will become clear if it is calamity or victory. If the latter, then the planning for a new “Boris Britain” can begin.

There are many areas where Mr Johnson can make his stamp and there is already a hint of what is to come. A big theme of the Integrated Review on Britain’s future defence, diplomacy and security, talked about Britain becoming a technology superpower.

By increasing Britain’s research and development budget from £15 billion ($20.63 billion) to £22 billion, Mr Johnson has already signalled intent. Coupled with a very strong network of universities – that proved their worth in coronavirus vaccine research – there is an opportunity to obtain a global strategic advantage.

“Boris Johnson is absolutely determined that Britain’s unique selling point by the end of the decade will be its status as a science and technology superpower,” said Benjamin Barnard, technology expert for the influential Policy Exchange think tank.

“We have the capacity to lead the world on this and I think the prime minister is determined to make sure that government doesn't stand in the way of Britain achieving its potential. As we've already done with financial services, where we’re the world leader, he wants to achieve the same thing for science and technology.

“That's what excites the prime minister, he really likes the idea of British technology being exported around the world. The creation of Aria – a new scientific agency for high-risk, high-reward research – with £800 million funding, is potentially a game-changer.”

Mr Barnard suggested the country could excel in making advanced batteries, finding effective carbon capture technology and matching China with semiconductor computer chip development.

But Mr Johnson will have to be patient. The projects will have to embrace risk as well as contemplate failure and the timeline for development could stretch to 15 years.

“The agency should be prepared to fail fast and fail often, with its success judged by the impact of its successes, which should be transformative,” Policy Exchange said in a paper.

Rebuilding the homeland

The social care agenda has been a running sore in Britain for many years and Mr Johnson has long promised to deliver on a system that is fair for all. The issue cost Theresa May her majority in the 2017 general election when the proposed "dementia tax" terrified the Tory base by suggesting middle-class families would lose their house inheritance to provide care for a relative with a long-term illness.

The system is inherently unfair. Cancer sufferers are covered but dementia victims are not, with care homes charging more than £1,500 a week, forcing many to sell their homes.

The answers to complex long-term social care are not simple. This week Mr Johnson proposed raising the National Insurance levy to pay for the care but ran into a wall of hostility, with accusations this would impose a greater tax burden on the less well off.

It will take courage to resolve but would prove a lasting testament.

Britain’s house planning has been unreformed for 70 years and is mainly controlled by local authorities. There is no real national strategy in place that can take the outdated rules into the 21st century and make homes affordable for the young, leading to a more upwardly mobile workforce that would benefit the economy.

Bold reform is needed. But the problem for Mr Johnson is that the heartland of Tory voters lies in the South-East, the region that is also the centre of the UK’s economy but is also low on housing stock. Wealthy Tory voters do not want new developments in their backyard. The backlash from this was palpable when the Conservatives dramatically lost the Chesham by-election last month to the Liberal Democrats, a worrying collapse in the “blue wall”.

If Mr Johnson weighed in to make a national government-driven building plan it would transform the market, making it fairer for the working young.

Thinking in building terms, Mr Johnson might also be contemplating following through on the pledge to build 40 new hospitals, at a cost of almost £4 billion. The NHS is a top vote winner, even more so given its heroic status gained during the pandemic, and a major hospital construction programme would prove beneficial politically and health-wise. Now is the time for Mr Johnson to seize the moment on the back of the momentum gained during the pandemic.

It is hoped that his vision will go some way beyond the rather vacuous speech made last week on his flagship “levelling up” policy, essentially bringing southern affluence northwards.

There is cynicism about the slogan, with some viewing it as an undisguised ploy to buy Labour votes rather seeking nationwide equality.

“He will be remembered if he genuinely improves the prospects of the North and the Midlands,” said an insider. “But there's no magic bullet, it's not enough just to build a new road to Hartlepool or a new railway line to Leeds. You’ve got to have better education and services. It's a process rather than something you can snap your fingers and make happen.”

Defence and security

The Integrated Review was the most important foreign policy document for at least a decade. With a reconstituted Royal Navy equipped with aircraft carriers and advanced jets the ability to project power rests in the prime minister’s hands. Mr Johnson has chosen a “Pacific tilt”, moving Britain’s strategic ambitions into the region that China jealously guards but which includes several allies, among them India, Japan and Australia.

In the post-Brexit world of Global Britain there is the potential to make a significant impact with considerable economic benefits – as long as he does not draw Britain into a fight with China. It is also a chance for Mr Johnson to cement the American alliance.

“This is an opportunity for the West to regroup and work ever closer with President [Joe] Biden,” said Tobias Ellwood, MP, the defence committee chairman. “But the United States has to lead on this and as the rest of the West is fragmented, the prime minster can significantly help in that relationship.”

He also believed that Mr Johnson’s legacy depended heavily on the post-pandemic world and “how quickly the economy can return to some form of normality”.

“The whole post-Covid recovery will be on his watch and this generation will look back and say how well did he do it. That will play a major part in his history.”

Political insiders believe that bar a political catastrophe, the Labour opposition is so weak that another Johnson election victory is near guaranteed. But that will be largely down to maintaining the Red Wall seats that used to belong to Labour but are now aligned to the aspirations of the Conservatives.

To maintain that vote Mr Johnson will have to continue the populist, divisive approach of appealing to Brexiteers, English Northerners, while spurning metropolitan elite Remainers.

That in its own right could create an unwanted legacy. A divided nation unreconciled to the European Union divorce could lead to Boris Johnson becoming the prime minister who fractured the 300-year-old union of the United Kingdom, with Scotland voting for independence and Northern Ireland opting to reunite with the Irish Republic.

That catastrophe aside, there are some who believe Mr Johnson’s ambitions are no more than a desire to be liked and finding quick-fix legacy items that are inexpensive, such as the “Boris Bikes” that he introduced while mayor of London, but possibly not the idea of a tunnel from mainland Britain to Ireland.

Something to his advantage, is that Mr Johnson is no longer in the thrall of Brexiteers led by his former adviser Dominic Cummings. The main influencer, according to insiders, is his wife Carrie, who it is believed will do all she can to ensure her husband’s premiership will be gilded with glory. Once the pandemic is banished then perhaps the uplands beckon.

Updated: July 24th 2021, 8:12 AM
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