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Boris beyond Brexit?

Mike Clancy · 1 July 2019

Prime Minister Boris Johnson — barring a shock upset, it is a phrase which looks set to enter the political lexicon.

The writer Peter Oborne recently described the advent of a Johnson premiership as a hurricane making landfall and like a hurricane, it seems impossible to predict how it will impact the political and economic landscape. Now given recent events it is possible the hurricane will dissipate and a Johnson premiership doesn’t land but as a trade union representing public and private sector workers, it’s our job to stand up for their interests — a task that involves anticipating the government’s agenda. We are a politically independent Union, known for saying it straight across the political spectrum, backed by evidence. We have worked with all parties on policy issues in the past, including some Conservatives, and are deeply worried by the increasing polarisation, evidence-free, politics we appear to be moving towards in the UK.

In this context, and given the lack of scrutiny the frontrunner has faced so far, it is legitimate to speculate about what a Johnsonian premiership might herald and to whom he gives the key offices of state, especially Chancellor and Business Secretary.

Much of the recent commentary has focused on ‘which Boris’ will govern us. Will it be the liberal showman of his Mayor of London era, full of praise for multi-culturalism and enterprise? Will it be a ‘one nation’ agenda-whatever that now means?

Or will it be the Brexit Boris who in 2016 said millions of Turks were poised to take our jobs and has since used rather fruitier language to describe business? Last weekend he lauded his unstinting support for the banks in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, surely a soundbite that will come back to haunt him. But what we focus on are what will he do about the workplace, legal rights, collective voice and Union organising.

On Brexit, the sole issue about which he has described anything approaching a plan, the direction remains unclear. Sure, he wants to return to Brussels and demand a new Withdrawal Agreement without the Northern Ireland backstop.

But what happens when the EU inevitably tells him that that particular dish is not on the menu?

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Will he go for a no deal? Will parliament let him? How will he react to these setbacks? All these decisions will have very real consequences for millions of workers.

And beyond Brexit we know even less. A populist tax cut aside, Johnson has so far revealed nothing that could be described as a domestic agenda.

Given this policy vacuum, who Johnson appoints to the top positions in his government takes on an even greater importance. His fellow travellers and supporters have illuminating opinions in this regard.

Informed speculation suggests that Liz Truss is one of the frontrunners to take the Treasury reins — a move that would give a strong indication of the government’s direction and an appointment that given past views should be extremely worrying for UK workers .

To put it simply, a key reason Prospect has expressed concern about the aftermath of Brexit is not because of a particular fondness for Brussels, but because of what it may unleash.

This may sound dramatic, but it is essentially true. For workers, the EU has provided a check on the worst impulses of deregulatory governments for decades.

There are some in the Conservative Party who look on unions and labour market regulation in a broadly positive light and some have proposals that at least are an attempt at balance. But there has also always been a certain political persuasion that regards regulation as ‘red tape’, health and safety legislation as a ‘burden on business’ and workers’ rights as ‘shackles on liberty’.

Nobody in British politics has made this argument more forcefully in recent years than Liz Truss.

In a recent speech at the London School of Economics, she declared that: “In the 1980s, it was unions that were holding people back from getting jobs — now it’s over-regulated occupations.”

She went on to compare civil servants and regulators to “Gremlins” who should be contained.

As a union that represents civil servants and regulators, we know them as dedicated public servants who keep people safe and have kept the country running — despite the best efforts of our political class.

Truss has declared it her ambition for the UK after Brexit to become “the most free country in the world” — a future she thinks can be achieved by slashing regulations on everything from health and safety to energy.

It is always a warning sign when politicians talk of ‘freedom’. Beware whose freedom is being promoted here. Freedom to hire and fire, freedom to see labour as a ‘factor in production’. Freedom for capital to dominate and not share. All at a time when we enter a new phase of technological change when ethics, voice and fairness are emerging again as key themes.

This is the aspect of the next government that should really worry workers across the UK.

There is a certain kind of Brexiteer who has been waiting to be free of Europe to ‘slash the red tape’– despite the growing evidence that new technologies, from social media to AI, require more, not less, regulation.

The prospect of this agenda being unleashed on us after a no deal Brexit is truly alarming. That it could be done without the public even getting a say is even worse.

I am convinced that there is no appetite, in theory or in practice, for an economic agenda to create a low tax, low regulation UK. We need to wake up and press the candidates for government leadership to declare what their prescriptions mean for working people, before it is too late.

Mike Clancy is the general secretary of Prospect Union.