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What if he fails? A public affairs guide to an unsuccessful Boris Johnson premiership

Words by:
Managing Director
July 18, 2019

We are on the eve of a Boris Johnson government.  In the context of the many challenges it faces, WA is scenario planning around whether it succeeds or fails.

Yesterday we published our thoughts on what a Johnson government might look like, if it succeeds.  Here are our thoughts on what a Johnson government may look like if it fails, and our advice for companies looking to work with the government.

As part of this ‘failure scenario’ we cannot dismiss the iceberg that is Brexit. It is inevitable that the first 100 days of a Johnson government will be consumed by the same challenges that eventually brought down Theresa May.

His chances of getting a deal? Slim, and getting slimmer every time he hardens his red lines as he did earlier this week. He faces exactly the same structural challenges as Theresa May:

  1. No overall majority: even with DUP support his working majority will start at three, likely to be reduced to two in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election
  2. An apparent majority against no deal in Parliament
  3. No indication whatsoever that the EU is willing to make any significant concessions on the deal offered to Theresa May

These inescapable facts are on a collision course with Johnson’s clear and repeated pledge that the UK will leave the European Union on 31st October. A technical majority of two isn’t worth much when you factor in known ardent remainers such as Dominic Grieve, as well as the recent pronouncement of Guto Bebb that he essentially won’t support a Johnson government.

Put simply, just getting past October 31st will be a major challenge. But supposing he does. What then can we expect?

A court of competing factions, each seeking to curry favour with the Prime Minister and following competing agendas. The risk being that policy making across government is even less joined up than usual with separate fiefdoms jealously protecting their own turf. Contentious issues such as immigration will, in particular, fall victim to internal spats over what the future direction of the UK should be post-Brexit. Demonstrating the benefits of ending freedom of movement will quickly run up against the economic reality of an economy held back by more vacancies than it can fill at a time of record high employment. This is not a recipe for certainty for business.

Detail-light, unachievable announcements. Impressive sounding proclamations and policy targets will be made before any credible, worked through plan to deliver them is in place. Ministers and advisers will be left to back fill the detail of how to actually make them happen. Rolling out full fibre broadband by 2025 is just the first example of a welcome but very stretching ambition that will be handed over to others to realise. Some of these announcements will turn out well, but many will waste time, money and effort, both of civil servants and industry, on white elephants – think Boris Island and the Garden Bridge.

Enduring Brexit splits. Whether a deal has been done or not, the Conservative Party’s deep Brexit wounds won’t heal overnight. Under a deal scenario, we will face another two years of debate over the future relationship while sitting in the transition phase. Many policy debates will be distorted by whether the desired outcome is to further distance the UK from Europe or to steer a course keeping us closely linked to the Single Market. Johnson’s attempts to promise different things to different factions will only exacerbate this problem. Following a no deal, there will be blame shifting and recriminations.

Our public affairs advice to companies looking to work with the new government under this scenario is as follows:

  • Align your proposals and asks with the Prime Minister’s personal ambitions …
  • … but also be sure to buttress this with close engagement with the actual delivery department and ministers
  • Have a robust and properly mapped strategy for navigating and, if necessary, playing off the competing factions to ensure your issues gain sufficient attention and airtime
  • Arm your internal government champions with the arguments they need to win heated policy debates
  • Continue to factor in how your policy agenda plays through a Brexit prism – either avoiding entanglement in this debate or tacking on to an optimistic post-Brexit future vision
  • Step up your engagement with opposition parties. An election could be triggered at almost any time in the coming months and is almost certain to take place by the Autumn. Labour are clearly key but the Liberal Democrats are set for a much better showing at the next election. Any one of the nationalist parties may play a role in shaping the government that emerges from an election.

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