You are here

COMMENTARY

George W Bush is best parallel for Boris Johnson's rule

SINCE Boris Johnson entered 10 Downing Street last month, numerous historical parallels have been made for his political leadership, with figures from Ronald Reagan to Winston Churchill, and indeed a more contemporary one in Donald Trump. Yet, the closest analogy may be with George W Bush, given the significant similarities between his and Mr Johnson's political playbooks.

Not only did both win power with a precarious electoral mandate that they took as cover for radical right-wing action, despite pledges to govern from the political centre ground. In addition, Mr Johnson now looks likely to copy from Mr Bush a relentlessly focused campaign to renew power based on appeals to patriotism at a time of major national challenge.

Like Mr Johnson, Mr Bush was elected to power with a contested electoral mandate. While the new UK prime minister won a majority of the approximately 160,000 Conservative Party members - around 0.2 per cent of the UK electorate - the then-US president became in 2000 the first person to win the electoral college, but lose the popular vote since 1888, a feat since repeated by Mr Trump in 2016.

Mr Bush's election mandate was further tarnished by the fact that it was ultimately sealed by the US Supreme Court after a heavily contested result in Florida. To some significant controversy, Conservative justices on the Supreme Court overturned a decision of the Florida Supreme Court on its interpretation of Florida law, overriding their normal deference to state courts, and sealing for Mr Bush an official margin of victory in that state of just 537 votes out of six million cast, with further vote recounting stopped in its tracks.

sentifi.com

Market voices on:

Yet, despite this slender, contested margin of victory, Mr Bush and hardline conservatives in his team, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, made few compromises in what was a subsequent, disciplined assumption of power. And rather than governing from the centre as a "compassionate conservative", the then-president proceeded with a radical package of measures, including one of the largest ever (US$1.35 trillion dollars) US tax cuts which disproportionately favoured high-income households, opposition to the Kyoto Protocol (the predecessor of the Paris Climate Change Treaty), plus the excesses of the "war on terror".

Evidence so far indicates that Mr Johnson, who like Mr Bush shares a patrician "born to rule" mindset, is consolidating power in a similar, nakedly partisan way. While making allusions to liberal, "One Nation" conservatism, Mr Johnson has created a Government of Brexit, for Brexit, by Brexit with the number of MPs in his Cabinet who voted Leave in 2016 doubling compared to the one under his predecessor Theresa May.

And already, in the face of public and parliamentary sentiment to the contrary, a central goal of Mr Johnson's administration appears to be moving towards the much stronger prospect of a no-deal Brexit, the hardest and most disorderly outcome of the UK's potential exit from the EU. Here, he has already set the nation on a collision course with the EU-27 by making the scrapping of the so-called Irish backstop a precondition for further negotiations, let alone a revised compromise deal.

Yet, he knows full well that Brussels cannot compromise here unless an alternative solution to the Irish border situation is found. This is not a tactical play, but a strategic necessity for European leaders as it risks undercutting either the integrity of the Single Market, or the Good Friday peace agreement.

Foolish as Mr Johnson's course of action is, he risks being potentially underestimated by opponents, just as Mr Bush was by some Democrats in 2001. To be sure, Mr Bush ultimately turned out to be, by the end of his second term, the least popular president since Gallup began its polling 70 years beforehand.

NATIONAL UNITY

But he nonetheless proved successful beforehand in pushing through a wide swathe of conservative measures. And indeed in being re-elected in 2004 on a pro-war, perceived patriotic platform, becoming the first Republican to do so alongside majorities for his party in both Houses of Congress since Herbert Hoover in 1928.

Just as Mr Bush sought to whip up national unity around his re-election campaign in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist atrocities, Mr Johnson appears to be playing a similar card as he moves towards his hard Brexit utopia in which he seeks to persuade that a no-deal exit is the ultimate patriotic act. Nonsense as this is, with the economic and political harm it could do to the nation, the danger for progressive forces is that it could strike a chord with key sections of the electorate in the short-term before major damage is done.

Despite Mr Johnson's apparent dismissal of the impact of a no-deal Brexit to the UK economy, there is a consensus among forecasts that this is wishful thinking. Longer-term forecasts aside, it is the short-term challenge that could be particularly intense, especially in the event of a no-deal scenario, hence why the Bank of England has asserted that the nation could tip into recession.

This is why, with a potential car-crash looming, the new prime minister is already in campaign mode planning for a potential snap general election this Autumn or Spring. With the Tories only having a majority of one in the House of Commons with their Democratic Unionist Party "supply and confidence" partner, the new prime minister knows he may need to strike soon with a ballot.

With Oct 31 - the current date for the UK's departure from the EU - on the horizon, the last date that such a national ballot could be triggered to ensure an election before this date is the first half of September. This is because a period of more than a month would then be needed for the campaign.

The period from now till the end of October will therefore be a potentially nail-biting first 100 days since the government came to power. Mr Johnson's agenda will be deeply damaging for the nation, and the key question is whether the UK electorate will be wise to this before the next national ballot, or as with the US electorate and Mr Bush, live to regret the consequences in the years that follow.

  • The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics