Boris Johnson’s Blue Wall Starts to Crack

Boris Johnson Angela Merkel
British prime minister Boris Johnson and German chancellor Angela Merkel pose for photos at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, June 11 (10 Downing Street/Simon Dawson)

British Conservatives woke up Friday morning to the news that a once-safe seat in Parliament was no longer blue.

Liberal Democrat Sarah Green overturned a majority of 16,000 in Chesham and Amersham, bordering the London Green Belt, with a remarkable 25-point swing away from the Conservatives. It is one of the largest swings away from the ruling party since the early 1990s, when Tony Blair launched New Labour.

Extrapolating from a by-election is risky. Britain has had many by-elections which were heralded as the dawning of a new political era that never arrived. But a center-right party losing the suburbs after lurching to the populist right sounds like a familiar story. Read more “Boris Johnson’s Blue Wall Starts to Crack”

Great British Railways: Neither Public Nor Private Enough

London England
Railways in London, England seen from The Shard tower, June 17, 2017 (Unsplash/Simon Mumenthaler)

This week, the British government published its long-awaited and somewhat delayed review into the British railway network.

The proposals — putting infrastructure, timetables, fares and tickets back into government hands but allowing private companies to run the trains — are a step in the right direction, but they would keep the network in a twilight zone.

British rail is neither fully private nor fully public, despite the government and the Treasury in particular having control over many aspects of the railway. Accountability is murky. Industry fragmentation — 29 train companies, fifteen leasing companies — has only made it worse. Read more “Great British Railways: Neither Public Nor Private Enough”

Statism Makes a Comeback in the United Kingdom

London England
The British flag flies over the Cabinet Office in London, England (Shutterstock/Willy Barton)

Two months ago, I argued Britain was once again the sick man of Europe. It had the second-highest per capita COVID death rate among major countries. Economic output had fallen 20 percent from the year before.

The crisis wasn’t lost on policymakers. The dual shock of coronavirus and Brexit — Britain formally left in 2019 but still applies EU rules and regulations this year — has led to something of a quiet revolution in Whitehall: the potential rebirth of the interventionist state.

There is still much wrong with how the British government has handled both events, the poster child for COVID being the decimation of the British aviation and travel industry as well as the arts. Not since the closing of the coal mines has an entire industry shrunk so dramatically.

Yet the seeds of a new statism have been sown — by a Conservative government. Read more “Statism Makes a Comeback in the United Kingdom”

Britain Is Once Again the Sick Man of Europe

London England
The Shard in London, England at night (Unsplash/J.J. Jordan)

During the 1960s and 70s, Britain, economically stagnant and losing its empire, was known as the sick man of Europe. With COVID-19, the sickness has returned — and this time it may be even harder to heal.

More than 300,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the United Kingdom. 41,000 Britons have died of the disease, giving the country the second-highest per capita death rate among major countries. British economic output fell 20 percent in April, the worst rate by far among industrial nations.

This comes after a decade of austerity and on top of the economic fallout of Brexit.

It was the tough medicine of Thatcherism that allowed the United Kingdom to recover from its previous bout of ill health and find a new faith in itself — “Cool Britannia” — under New Labour.

But the seeds of the current malaise were planted in the same era. Read more “Britain Is Once Again the Sick Man of Europe”

British Rediscover Normalcy in Abnormal Times

London England
View of the Houses of Parliament from Whitehall in London, England (Shutterstock/Alan Copson)

“Normal” may not be the best word to describe the situation in the United Kingdom, where 60,773 people, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are known to have contracted coronavirus disease and 7,097 with the infection have died.

Yet after years during which Britain’s exit from the European Union overshadowed everything, there are also signs that political life on the island is returning to normalcy.

As the government has tightened restrictions on public life in order to contain the outbreak, communities across the country are helping each other out. Almost every neighborhood now has a “COVID-19 Community Group” that organizes care for the needy and most vulnerable. Bitter divisions over Brexit have been set aside. Read more “British Rediscover Normalcy in Abnormal Times”

Stakes Are High in British Election, But Outcome Is Up in the Air

The Houses of Parliament in London, England, February 19, 2013
The Houses of Parliament in London, England, February 19, 2013 (Martin Robson)

In a month, Britain will have its third election in four years. Once more the reason is Brexit, or rather the lack of Brexit.

I’ve argued before that Britain’s departure from the EU is accelerating a breakdown of the two-party system. The upcoming election is like a kaleidoscope. Every time you shake it, a new pattern appears.

Yet the stakes are simple enough. For the Conservatives, all that matters is winning a majority. The other parties merely have to stop this from happening to claim victory.

Already we can say the new Parliament will be more partisan and less experienced. Sixty lawmakers with 750 years of combined legislative experience are not seeking reelection. Many blame the coarse political discourse of recent years. Read more “Stakes Are High in British Election, But Outcome Is Up in the Air”

After Week of Turmoil, What Next for British Politics?

Elizabeth Tower of the Houses of Parliament in London, England
Elizabeth Tower of the Houses of Parliament in London, England (Unsplash/Paul Green)

Tuesday was an historic night in British politics, and one whose outcome could reverberate through the coming months and years.

Lawmakers voted 328 to 321 to take control of the parliamentary agenda from the government in order to demand that Boris Johnson, the prime minister, ask for an extension of Britain’s exit from the European Union if no withdrawal agreement is in place by October 17.

Johnson, who currently has a 100-percent loss rate in Parliament, and is the first British prime minister since William Pitt the Younger in 1793 to lose his first vote, refuses to delay Brexit and called for an early election instead.

But that too failed. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a two-thirds supermajority is required to call an early election. Many opposition lawmakers, who fear an early election is a government trap to bring about a no-deal Brexit, abstained. Read more “After Week of Turmoil, What Next for British Politics?”

Election of Britain’s Next Prime Minister Feels a Little Ridiculous

Boris Johnson
British foreign secretary Boris Johnson answers questions from reporters in Kiev, Ukraine, March 1, 2017 (Shutterstock/Nazar Gonchar)

The contest to succeed Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and prime minister of the UK is about halfway through. A field of more than two dozen candidates has been whittled down to two by parliamentarians. The final contenders are Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

The entire thing has an air of ridicule to it. Many in the country have watched the televised debates between the candidates setting out their policies on not just Brexit but controversial domestic issues, such as social care and high-speed rail. But out of millions, only 150 to 160,000 party members have a vote.

On top of this, to spend the better half of two months choosing a new leader, who will be the new prime minister by default, when the country faces perhaps its greatest crisis in half a century seems rather like rearranging the deckchairs on a sinking ship — futile and even a little insulting to those who suspect more could have been done with the six-month Brexit extension granted by the EU in April. Read more “Election of Britain’s Next Prime Minister Feels a Little Ridiculous”

Brexit Is Tearing Britain’s Conservative Party Apart

British prime minister Theresa May attends a NATO summit in Brussels, July 11, 2018
British prime minister Theresa May attends a NATO summit in Brussels, July 11, 2018 (Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis)

In last month’s European elections, Britain’s Conservative Party outdid expectations that it would perform poorly by performing terribly. It placed fifth with just 9 percent support, the party’s worst result since 1832.

This is a humiliation for a party that prides itself on being Britain’s “natural party of government”. Theresa May promptly announced she would step down as prime minister and party leader. Twelve candidates are vying to replace her, including the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

A fresh face won’t be enough avert the next electoral disaster, though. The Conservatives have lost their reputation for competence and prudence during the Brexit process and the issue of Europe — which has brought down every Conservative prime minister since Ted Heath — is unlikely to go away. Read more “Brexit Is Tearing Britain’s Conservative Party Apart”

Local Elections Highlight Political Fragmentation in United Kingdom

View of Bideford, England from the River Torridge
View of Bideford, England from the River Torridge (Shutterstock)

The outcome of local elections in the United Kingdom last week painted a stark picture for the country’s two major political parties.

The ruling Conservatives were expecting to lose around 800 of their 5,521 seats. They ended up losing 1,330 and with it control of 44 councils.

Labour, who were expecting gains, ended up losing 84 seats and control of six councils.

The clear winners were the Liberal Democrats, who more than doubled their seats, from 658 to 1,351, with 19 percent support. The Greens also won.

It is tempting to write up the result to those parties’ pro-EU message, but there is actually more at play. Read more “Local Elections Highlight Political Fragmentation in United Kingdom”