With there being little of substance to chew on in his first speech as the country’s PM, perhaps the key to understanding Boris Johnson’s intentions lies not in his rhetoric but in his appointments, writes Nick Hughes
A Great British eccentric whose unique brand of chutzpah will secure a golden future for his country? Or a power-obsessed charlatan prepared to inflict untold damage in order to fulfil his own personal ambition?
There can be few, if any, British prime ministers that have divided opinion so acutely from their first day in office as Boris Johnson. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine Johnson being elected to lead his party, and by extension the country, at a time of relative political and economic stability such is his ability to polarise public opinion.
But with British politics stuck in a state of perpetual turmoil MPs may well have concluded there’s nothing left to lose by siding with Johnson, and for those Conservatives hell-bent on leaving the EU without a deal there is everything potentially to gain.
For the 99% of the population who didn’t have the opportunity to deliver their opinion on Johnson at the ballot box, questions around what kind of a leader he will be and what agenda he will pursue will feel all the more pressing.
On food, health, and the environment specifically, there is not a huge body of evidence to go on – Johnson famously being both a political weathervane and a man without a fondness for detail.
His first speech to the nation outside 10 Downing Street was typically Johnsonian in its content and tone, painting a vivid picture of sunnier times ahead while denouncing in colourful terms the “pessimists”, “doomsters” and “gloomsters” who doubt the prime minister’s ability to deliver on his pledge “to change this country for the better”.
There followed a whistle-stop tour through Johnson’s policy priorities: sweeping in their ambition and sufficiently vague to bat away future accusations of non-delivery.
Among them was a rather curious pledge to “liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti genetic modification rules”. Curious because, while GM would undoubtedly feature on a greatest hits album of food issues, it is hardly considered a contemporary classic.
Dig a little deeper into the context, however, and the statement is straight from the Eurosceptic playbook of how to foster resentment towards the EU institution; a playbook that Johnson as much as anyone is responsible for writing.
During his early career as Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph Johnson made a name for himself by taking prosaic policy proposals and twisting them into outrageous stories that characterised Brussels bureaucrats as posing a threat to the traditional British way of life. Hence, we had the infamous ‘ban’ on prawn cocktail crisps, which conveniently ignored the fact that prawn cocktail crisps were never banned and their removal from a list of approved flavourings and sweeteners was the result of an administrative error on the part of the UK government, which was quickly rectified.
Fallacious bans on bendy bananas and cucumbers have since become the stock-in-trade of arch Eurosceptics and their cheerleaders in the media seeking to incite outrage among the public with gold-standard examples of nonsensical EU bureaucracy.
Johnson was reverting to type as recently as a few weeks ago, feigning outrage over a requirement for kippers sold direct to consumers to be transported with a plastic ice pillow. No matter that it was quickly revealed that the advice came from the UK Food Standards Agency rather than Brussels bureaucrats – Johnson’s purpose had already been served.
In his speech Johnson also spoke of promoting the welfare of animals “that has always been so close to the hearts of the British people”. Some commentators took this as a nod to his partner, Carrie Symonds, a keen proponent for animal rights. But in an example of the dichotomy that is Boris Johnson, in his very next sentence he trumpeted his desire to “start now on those free-trade deals” that many environmentalists fear will undermine the UK’s own high food and farming standards.
Which brings us to the make-up of Johnson’s cabinet. Those appointed to the four great offices of state surely count as the most economically liberal quartet in modern times. Each of Johnson, chancellor of the exchequer Sajid Javid, foreign secretary Dominic Raab, and home secretary Priti Patel are committed proponents of free trade and the deregulatory agenda that goes hand-in-hand in right-wing economic doctrine.
As business secretary Javid introduced the ‘one in, three out’ policy whereby for every £1 of regulatory burden the government created, £3 worth had to be removed.
No-deal enthusiast Raab has made no secret of his desire to reach out immediately to countries representing the 60% of UK trade that takes place outside of the EU to strike free-trade arrangements.
Fellow Brexiteer Patel, meanwhile, has set out her stall to take a tough line on immigration, using a Mail on Sunday article to propose a skills-based approach that favours “brilliant scientists, academics and highly skilled workers” who add the most value to the British economy. Patel wrote that the government would be “tougher on those who abuse our hospitality”, a statement tinged with irony given the reliance of the hospitality sector on migrant labour, not to mention those of farming and food manufacturing.
Indeed, with a few exceptions, the food industry is united in fearing the prospect of a hard exit from the EU and the consequent threat of labour shortages, crippling tariffs, and trade deals that undercut high UK standards and undermine the prospects of UK producers and businesses.
Which is why hopes are pinned on Johnson’s de-facto second-in-command, Michael Gove, to keep a check on the instincts of his more radical colleagues.
For many in the food industry and NGO sector the departure of Gove from DEFRA is cause for great regret, a state of affairs that few could have predicted when he was appointed to the post of environment secretary two years ago.
Gove, the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to give him his official title, committed himself to the DEFRA role with gusto, soaking up information, listening to all sides of different debates and putting forward a policy agenda that was both challenging while largely managing to appease stakeholders with contrasting priorities, if not in all the detail then in the general direction of travel.
Gove brought forward the first Environment Bill in 20 years and drew up an Agriculture Bill that charts a radical new path outside of the Common Agricultural Policy with its core principle of public money for public goods.
The main criticism levelled at Gove, however, is that for all the warm words and big ideas, precious little policy has made it into the statute book. Take, for instance, the proposal for a deposit return scheme (DRS), a key pillar of the government’s response to the scandal of plastic waste but one that could still be derailed by Gove’s successor, Theresa Villiers, or those she reports to.
Little is known of Villiers’ views where food and the environment is concerned and there is a fear that – minus the drive and political influence of Gove – DEFRA will return to being the Whitehall backwater it was under previous secretaries of state. This in spite of the welcome reappointment of George Eustice who will bring personal farming experience and in-depth policy knowledge to the role of minister of state.
Another former environment secretary, Liz Truss, now finds herself as international trade secretary – a job she is ideally qualified for having spent two years at DEFRA promoting ‘brand Britain’ to whoever would listen, to the exclusion of the remaining 95% of her brief. Truss took to Twitter recently to announce (with accompanying rocket emojis) that her priority now is to strike a string of free-trade deals, beginning with Donald Trump’s United States.
Fellow DEFRA placeholder Andrea Leadsom has landed the job of business secretary, where she faces the task of facilitating a fourth industrial revolution powered by a low-carbon economy. No pressure there then.
Matt Hancock, meanwhile, returns as health secretary having decided, after much soul-searching and job-prospecting, that no-deal is an outcome he can now tolerate, perhaps as a draconian solution to the obesity crisis that three iterations and counting of the government’s obesity strategy has yet to solve.
Indeed, beyond the all-consuming puzzle of Brexit, a range of weighty issues such as the spiralling cost of treating obesity-related diseases are waiting in the in-tray of a Johnson government.
Perhaps most urgent of all is the need to map a proportionate response to the planetary crisis that in May saw MPs declare an environment and climate emergency.
Johnson has previously declared his support for a net-zero target; however, it was instructive how climate change was mentioned only once during his inaugural speech and this through the lens of free enterprise as he trumpeted how Britain was “leading the world in the battery technology that will help cut CO2”.
A market-based fix to the climate crisis would sit comfortably within the free-market ideology of Johnson’s top team, yet recent warnings from the Committee on Climate Change and the IPCC leave little room to doubt that government will have a vital role to play in creating the policy environment that unleashes the potential for clean growth.
Brexit will almost certainly define Johnson’s time as prime minister, however long that may be. But if he surprises his critics by setting the UK on the path to a net-zero future he might just secure the heroic epithet he has always craved.