Friday, 16 May 2008

BoJo, the Tories and Europe

It's been an intense couple of weeks in British politics. Following the devastating blow dealt to the Labour party in the May 1 local elections, the government seems to be in a full panic.

On Wednesday, Gordon Brown unveiled a preview of the Queen's speech (the British equivalent of the US State of the Union), which contained a hodgepodge of drastic new bills designed to rescue Brown's seemingly doomed government. All except the most blatantly pro-Labour media outlets are skeptical about whether the initiatives, which increasingly seem to be going after the votes of Middle England (the more conservative ‘heartland’ of the country), will work. A perfect storm seems to have gathered over Westminster, and the buzzards are already circling. In order for Labour to stay in power, does Brown have to go?

To be fair, much of the discord isn't Gordon Brown's fault but is rather a set of unlucky circumstances. When Tony Blair stepped down as prime minister in June 2007 and Gordon Brown stepped into his place, he inherited a Labour government already deeply unpopular because of the Iraq War. Though he enjoyed a brief honeymoon period, things quickly went sour. People around him hedged about whether or not he was going to call an election in September, and when he eventually didn’t it started the ball rolling downhill. Brown’s public image became that of a ditherer, and he hasn’t been able to shake it.

Then came a series of financing scandals, nothing even remotely serious or directly related to Brown, but their sheer number generated day after day of bad headlines for the government. Then came the global credit crisis, a conflict with Labour backbenchers over a change to the lowest tax bracket, and inconsistencies with the Labour government in Scotland. All this led up to the local elections on May 1st, in which Labour was absolutely clobbered. The party is now polling at the lowest point in its history, and many are calling for Gordon Brown’s head. Earlier this week Labour MP Frank Field was the first to publicly say that he thinks Brown should exit before the election is called. The governing party can call the election any time it wants before 2010.

Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech revelations seemed to signal that Brown is making a mad dash back to Blairism. In fact that package of reforms to hospitals, schools, police and welfare seemed to be straight out of Blair’s New Labour playbook. But will it be enough to save Brown’s hide?

The BoJo effect

The highest-profile Labour loss on May 1 was that of Ken Livingstone, the only mayor London has ever known since the position was creating in 2000. He was defeated by Conservative Boris Johnson, a colourful character and former journalist whose past writings, including some that could be considered racist, have made him unpopular with the city’s minorities. He’s also considered a bit of a joke; he has a history of making verbal gaffes, and there are many who are predicting he may actually end up hurting the Tories by the time of the next election because he will have made some high-profile embarrassing misjudgement in his personal or political life.

BoJo ran as the consummate populist, running on a platform of getting rid of minority commissions, combating illegal immigration and taking a hard line on crime. One of his most prominent campaign issues was that he would get rid of the bendy buses, two-bus long vehicles that replaced double decker buses on some routes in central London. Though these types of buses are used in just about every other major city in the world, the Brits have been strangely horrified by them and have demanded that they bring back the double-deckers. There were numerous media reports claiming that these new menaces were killing dozens of cyclists and pedestrians on the roads, and they’ve drilled that impression into Londoners’ heads. Of course, the reality is that the bendy buses have killed no one. The studies the media have cited about the increased risk they pose to pedestrians and cyclists have been deeply flawed, because they compare the bendy bus routes, which are in the more crowded central London, to all other bus routes, which operate around the whole city and in less crowded areas. But don’t tell a British person that, the bendy buses are not popular here.

One of Boris’s first acts after becoming mayor was to ban drinking alcohol on the buses and tube, which he claims is somehow the cause of antisocial behaviour on public transport. It’s a bizarre connection to make considering the people on the bus or tube who are causing trouble are most likely already drunk when they get on. I’ve certainly never seen anyone who was drinking on the bus or tube causing trouble. But beyond that, he’s instituted the change without giving London transport any way of enforcing it. So in the end the new rule will probably end up being a bit of a joke.

Beyond these ‘quality of life’ issues it’s difficult to predict what BoJo has in store for London. But one thing was made clear by the headlines on the continent after his election: Boris is not popular in Europe. France’s Le Monde proclaimed, "after Italy, Britain" turns to the right, comparing Boris to Rome’s new fascist mayor (an absurd comparison), and Spain’s El Pais fretted that Johnson’s win meant that a Tory win in the next general election is all but inevitable. Of course there is good reason why BoJo is unpopular in Europe. While working as the Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph he was absolutely brutal in his coverage of the EU. In fact in one of his final columns for the paper he even took credit for causing ‘Europe’s downfall’ because of his critical reporting.

Waiting for a Tory Britain

Of course the London mayor’s opinions about the EU are probably not all that consequential to the continent, but BoJo’s Euroscepticism is shared by a vast swathe of his party. Many in Brussels fear that BoJo’s election means a Tory win in 2009 is assured, and this could lead to a Britain even more unfriendly to the EU than it is already.

But it’s unclear how big of an issue Europe will be in the upcoming election. Brown himself is very much not the Europhile his predecessor Tony Blair was, so the election can hardly be phrased as a ‘pro-Europe’ or ‘anti-Europe’ referendum. Cameron would certainly not want Europe to be one of the main issues in the Campaign because he would be forced to address the inconsistency between Tory rhetoric and the reality of the Tory platform on the EU. Having Europe insert its head into the election would probably force Cameron to make promises he can’t keep. At the same time it may be to Labour’s advantage to bring Europe center stage in the election to put the Tories in that awkward position and to revive the old conflicts within the party over whether Britain should or should not be in the EU.

In any case, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Brown cannot ride out this storm, and that either Labour will have to change its leadership before the next election or Cameron will be the next PM. Either way, the turbulence occurring on the British political landscape will have a profound impact on the country’s relations both with the EU and the United States. The Conservative party has been basically defunct since 1993. The fact that it is now rising from the ashes is something the rest of Europe will be watching with keen interest.

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