Seven signs of things to come in Brexit Britain
Tories have been back in office for a week, but have already given a glimpse of Britain’s post-Brexit future.
London, United Kingdom – Last week, Britain’s Conservatives resoundingly won the country’s general election in a landslide which pushed the opposition Labour party to their worst result since before the second world war.
Once all the Champagne corks in Downing Street had been popped and the final bottle of the night had been drained, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set to work, safe in the knowledge that his thumping 80-seat majority would give him carte blanche in governing a country hamstrung by bitter division for the three-and-a-half years since the fateful European Union referendum.
It was nearly a week before the queen set out the government’s legislative agenda in her speech at the official state opening of Parliament – albeit trimmed down of much of its pomp and spectacle just nine weeks after the last one – but top Tories wasted no time in throwing off the shackles of the previous paralysed legislature, in which Johnson was thwarted at every turn, with no majority and no ability to govern, now flexing their muscle and showing the country their plans for using their new-found power.
“The Conservatives sold a simple, straight-forward image of getting things done that delivered them the election,” Mark Shanahan, head of the politics department at the University of Reading, told Al Jazeera.
“But their voters should be careful what they wish for.”
Here are seven highlights of the first week of the Conservatives’ return to power.
1. Damien Green advocates a US-style, insurance-based social care system
Less than 24 hours after polls had closed, Damien Green, a former secretary of state for work and pensions, and a Conservative member of parliament since 1997, appeared on the LBC radio station and spoke about social care.
“We all accept there has to be more money to go into the system,” he said.
“You can pay it just out of general taxation and say it’s all free, but that means that people who are currently taxpayers – 30-, 40-, 50-somethings now – will have to pay towards their own care at the end of life, but also they’ll instantly start paying for the older generation’s care as well … Which I think, to put it mildly, has fairness implications to it.
“Or, you can try some kind of insurance system, so that those who can afford to take out a policy should be encouraged to do so, which will buy them peace of mind, and if you have a big enough insurance system, you don’t need people selling their homes. You need them to use a bit of property wealth to do it, but it’ll be a controlled amount, they’ll know what they’re spending, they’ll know what they’ve got left… that’s the system I advocate.”
Statutory social care in the United Kingdom has been stretched by the demands of an ageing population and austerity-driven cuts to services – but it is currently funded through general taxation and is either free at the point of use, or subsidised based on means-testing.
“The Conservatives’ great medicine show in the UK election was the cure-all ‘Get Brexit Done’,” Scott Lucas, professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, told Al Jazeera.
“But the ideas they have floated in the past 72 hours indicate they may have a lot more snake oil in their cabinet.”
2. Confirmation extra nurses and hospitals will not materialise for at least 10 years
The Conservatives were ridiculed during the election campaign when it emerged that 18,500 of 50,000 new nurses promised to the country’s beloved National Health Service were not going to be new recruits, but existing staff the government aimed to retain.
Speaking on ITV, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nicky Morgan – who stood down ahead of the election, only to be appointed by Johnson to the House of Lords and keep her job – said the nurses would be in place “if you look in 10 years’ time”.
Johnson has also repeatedly pledged to build 40 new hospitals, though the plans, in reality, provide the cash to pay for six to be refurbished within the five years of this Parliament.
3. Plans to outlaw boycotts of Israeli goods and institutions
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement seeks to pressure the Israeli government to end its 52-year military occupation of Palestinian territories and its daily infringements of Palestinian human rights. But Eric Pickles, former Conservative Party chairman, summed up the feelings of many Tories by calling it “a thin disguise for anti-Semitism”.
Johnson went on to speak out against it in Parliament on Thursday:
Boris looks set to outlaw local councils and public bodies from taking part in #BDS boycott of Israeli state institutions. pic.twitter.com/esNYI1Nogr
— James Brownsell (@JamesBrownsell) December 20, 2019
Read more: ‘Deeply damaging’: Anger as Boris Johnson plans ‘anti-BDS’ law
4. Ditching workers’ rights and environmental protection
The Conservatives have long been known as the party of business, so it may come as little surprise that pledges to maintain profit-sapping workers’ rights and environmental protections are being scrapped.
In the proposed draft law intended to bring the UK out of the EU – known as the Brexit Bill – brought forward by the prime minister in October, there was a commitment to provide additional “procedural protections” for workers’ rights currently guaranteed by EU law which could have been challenged by unscrupulous employers in post-Brexit Britain. They were contained in Clause 34 and Schedule four of the bill.
But in the amended bill brought to Parliament on Friday, those protections have been scrubbed out.
It was the second blow in a double-whammy – on Wednesday, the prime minister’s spokesman announced plans to empower lower-order courts to overturn EU laws and rulings of the European Court of Justice after Britain leaves the world’s largest trading bloc. Analysts point out that this could put at risk not only workers’ rights and environmental protections, but also consumer rights, such as receiving compensation for delayed flights, currently enshrined EU law.
The spokesperson said this was an example of “taking back control of our laws”, as had been promised.
5. Axing pledge to allow MPs a vote on extending Brexit transition
Also stripped out of the new Brexit Bill is a guarantee that ministers of parliament would be allowed to extend the Brexit “transition period” if a trade deal is not reached between the UK and EU by the end of 2020 – an announcement which sent the pound tumbling.
It again raises the spectre of what most economists, healthcare administrators and other experts describe as an economically calamitous “no-deal” Brexit.
6. Abandoning plans to raise the national living wage
A flagship policy launched at the Conservative Party conference in September was to raise the “living wage” to 10.50 pounds ($13.66) an hour. It would have benefitted about four million people, and meant a boost of 4,000 pounds ($5,200) a year to some of Britain’s lowest-earners.
It is not clear how many voters were swayed by the policy, but the Queen’s Speech on Thursday indicated it would only be implemented “provided economic conditions allow”.
“Working people will want to check the small print before trusting this government’s promises,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress.
7. Finding support among the far right
Britain First, a far-right fascist group whose leaders were jailed for religiously aggravated harassment last year, has urged its members in an email newsletter to join the Conservative Party to “make Boris Johnson’s leadership more secure”. The email claimed thousands of its supporters had signed up to join Johnson’s party.
Tommy Robinson, the founder of the English Defence League, declared that “everyone should vote for Boris Johnson”. And writer Katie Hopkins lashed out at former Conservative chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi’s call for the Tories to start healing its relationship with British Muslims.
A Conservative spokesperson told The Independent newspaper the party was “vigilant against those seeking to join the party who do not share our aims”, but activists have called for Johnson to issue a strong denunciation of hard line rhetoric.
“The prime minister says he does not condone the views of Tommy Robinson, but he has not condemned them either,” Harun Khan, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, told the paper.
Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the British Influence think-tank.
“During the election campaign, the Conservatives promised to be a hard-right nationalist government which disregarded concerns about rights, the economy and democratic norms,” he told Al Jazeera.
“One week after their victory, they are simply confirming it.”
More to come?
The Conservatives have also proposed a commission to study the nation’s “constitution, democracy and rights”, sparking fears of potential gerrymandering, reducing the independence of the judiciary and the repeal of the Human Rights Act.
There were also proposals in the Queen’s Speech to bring in a voter ID law, despite warnings it could disenfranchise voters, particularly those who are low-income, vulnerable or from minority communities.
“All of the government’s public commentary, and a carefully worded Queen’s Speech, shout ‘Look at what we say, not what we do’,” said Dr Shanahan of the University of Reading.
“The promises of a new, hopeful UK are actually bounded in by a more executive-dominated style of politics that favour the Conservatives’ friends – and promises, longer-term, a more libertarian UK. We won’t see big changes until the spring, but the devil will be in the detail with this government – and those details may not favour those from outside London who helped create the new ‘Great Blue Wall’.”
A request to Conservative Party headquarters for comment on this article resulted in the phone being hung up without any comment given. The party has also failed to reply to emailed requests for comment.