“Packed with rightwing free marketeers” is how The Guardian described Boris Johnson’s new cabinet last week, and many on the free market right are calling this ‘the best cabinet since Thatcher’. Is this cause for optimism? Can we expect a freer Britain post-Brexit with Boris and his new government?
Some of Boris’ appointments do have strong free market credentials. Free Enterprise Group founder Liz Truss, a common appearance at free market think tank events, is now International Trade Secretary, Christmas Ayn Rand reader and Thatcher admirer Sajid Javid is now Chancellor, school choice reformer Michael Gove is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and serial critic of government departments and subsidies Dominic Raab is now Foreign Secretary.
That combined with a lot of positive rhetoric in Boris’ opening speech seems cause for some optimism. Johnson spoke in Prime Ministers’ questions on Wednesday of the need to leave business free to work to produce the prosperity needed to support public services. He has promised a pro-business environment with tax reforms to keep Britain competitive against Europe after Brexit. He seems like a leader with a clear philosophy and his cabinet appointments and can-do attitude look like cause for hope at last.
Nevertheless, such optimism, although possibly justified, shouldn’t be allowed to get out of hand. Boris’ speech included the same old concessions to the mass voter consciousness we’ve grown accustomed to. The tired trope that the NHS will be turned around by more funding has given way to the slightly more nuanced ‘better directed funding’, still ignoring its inherent structural failings, and another increase to the living wage is little more than a publicity trick that could well end up hurting businesses and employment prospects in the long run.
It’s hard to find anyone among the cabinet appointments who doesn’t have some strong free market credentials, but it’s important to bear in mind that they’re all politicians with an interest in maintaining the existence of their departments and their influence, as well as in winning over voters with pre-formed ideas about state-run public services and redistributive policies. Socially this is a more ‘conservative’ government than we’ve seen since before Thatcher, and some of these appointments may try to use government power to enact social policies or protectionist economic policies to attempt to re-establish British identity post Brexit.
Even if they do remain true to free market or even individualist values, there’s a limit to how far they’ll be prepared to go before securing a larger majority. Pro-market policies are extremely risky electorally, and it took Thatcher three election wins to get really serious on many of hers.
There may be cause for hope, especially for a more business-friendly Britain in a short term hard Brexit scenario. Longer term, though, it’s important to temper that with an appreciation of the precarious position of this Government’s authority, the state of the national consciousness on these issues and the other influences and ideological elements at play in this Government and the wider Conservative party. It is a step in the right direction, but a smaller one than some are making out, and further steps really depend on a vast amount going right over the coming months. This government is, at most, three MPs away from collapse, so the really heavy reforms will almost certainly have to wait until an election, the outcome of which depends entirely on the success of the Brexit process.