UK's Boris Johnson set to unveil plans as Labour opponents wrangle
LONDON - British voters have given Prime Minister Boris Johnson a commanding majority. But they have little idea what he plans to do with it.
Johnson won last week’s election with a campaign pledge to “get Brexit done” by taking Britain out of the European Union on Jan. 31, and to increase public spending after years of austerity.
Now he has to turn vague election pledges into political reality. That will start Thursday, when Johnson's government announces its legislative plans for the coming year in a speech read out in Parliament by Queen Elizabeth II.
Anand Menon, director of the political think-tank UK in a Changing Europe, said that with his 80-strong majority in the 650-seat House of Commons, Johnson can govern however he wants.
“But what we don’t know is what he wants,” Menon said. “We’ve just had a so-called Brexit election, and yet we’re not entirely certain what kind of Brexit this prime minister wants to deliver.”
The Queen’s Speech - written by the government but read by the monarch from atop a golden throne - will give some idea of what drives Johnson, a politician whose core beliefs remain a mystery, even to his allies.
He sometimes acts like a Donald Trump-style populist - dubbing his administration a “People’s Government” and banning his ministers from attending the elitist World Economic Forum next month in Davos, Switzerland. But he also claims to be a socially liberal “one nation” Tory who welcomes immigration and wants Britain to be a leader in tackling climate change.
It’s unclear which Johnson will be uppermost in Thursday’s speech, which forms part of the ceremony-rich State Opening of Parliament. It usually takes place about once a year, but Britain saw its last state opening just two months ago, soon after Johnson took over as prime minister from Theresa May through a Conservative Party leadership contest.
For the queen's second visit this year, the pomp is being toned down. There will still be officials with titles like Black Rod and lords in ermine-trimmed robes. But the 93-year-old monarch will travel to Parliament in a car, rather than a horse-drawn carriage, and will wear a hat, rather than a diamond-studded crown.
Prominent on the list of legislation will be Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill, the law needed to make Brexit a reality. It must become law before January 31 if Johnson is to stick to his timetable, and the government plans to hold the first significant vote on it Friday.
The bill commits Britain to leaving the EU on January 31 and to concluding trade talks by the end of 2020. Johnson insists he won’t agree to any more delay - a vow that has set off alarm bells among businesses, who fear it means the country will face a “no-deal” Brexit at the start of 2021.
Trade experts and EU officials say striking a free trade deal in only 11 months will be a struggle. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the timetable “extremely challenging".
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said “it won’t be possible … in this limited time to do everything. But we will do everything we can.”
Thursday’s speech is also set to include a bill to overhaul the immigration system after Brexit, when EU citizens will lose the automatic right to live and work in the UK.
Beyond Brexit, there’s likely to be a spending boost for the National Health Service, which has struggled to keep up with growing demand during a decade-long funding squeeze by previous Conservative governments.
Johnson loves big infrastructure projects, and in the past has floated everything from a “Boris Island” airport in the River Thames to a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Improving dire train services in northern England is a more likely, and achievable, priority for his government.
There’s also likely to be a tough-sounding announcement on law and order. After two people were killed last month in London by an attacker who had served a prison sentence for terrorist crimes, Johnson said he would end early prison release for serious offenders.
Johnson will make his mark on government more decisively in the new year. He’s expected to shake up his Cabinet and overhaul the machinery of government by merging or even eliminating ministries - all under the guiding eye of chief adviser Dominic Cummings, a self-styled political disruptor.
Johnson also will also have to wait to see how Brexit affects the UK economy. A downturn could hamper the government’s plans to spend more on public services.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said Conservative prime ministers from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May all took office promising, like Johnson, to “heal the nation” and tackle social injustice.
“But actually in the end … they don’t want to spend too much money, they don’t want to raise taxes too high, they don’t want to regulate the economy - and actually nothing much happens,” he said. “So don’t hold your breath.”
Meanwhile, politicians from the main opposition Labour Party have begun jostling to become the next leader of the left-of-center party in the wake of its crushing election defeat.
Labour lost 60 seats, securing only 203, as voters rejected its complicated position on Brexit and its hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, foreign policy spokeswoman Emily Thornberry and lawmakers Lisa Nandy and Yvette Cooper all say they are considering running in a contest to replace Corbyn due to be held early next year.
Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair — whose centrist policies were rejected by Corbyn — said the party had become “marooned on Fantasy Island” and urged it to change course quickly.
“The takeover of the Labour Party by the far left turned it into a glorified protest movement, with cult trimmings, utterly incapable of being a credible government,” Blair said in a speech on Wednesday. “The result has brought shame on us. We let our country down.”