Even if the election did deliver a majority, there is another, bigger problem. Any vote held before October 31 is likely to be fought on a narrow, procedural question: Should Britain leave the EU on that date, whether it has a withdrawal deal or not? British election campaigns are fought in a matter of weeks, and there is simply not enough time, or political oxygen, to scrutinize the main parties’ non-Brexit-related plans for the country. Yet the result could see the winner installed in Downing Street for a full five-year term.
Every election is a crossroads, a chance for the country to decide its future. Yet for the past three years, hardly any attention has been paid to the very different visions the Conservatives and Labour, the main opposition, have for Britain. The parties are much further apart than they were even in the aftermath of the financial crisis, when both agreed that state spending needed to be curbed and welfare benefits should be reduced. Since then, Labour has elected a strongly left-wing leader, with a foreign policy sharply distinct from that of his predecessors: Much less friendly to the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and more sympathetic to Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.
As for the Conservatives, their ideological gravity is now—where, exactly? For a small but driven section of the party, Brexit is an opportunity to remake the British economy. The usual shorthand is the Singapore model: low corporation taxes, disempowered trade unions, low regulation, reduced welfare benefits, and a large, but temporary, migrant workforce.
Johnson’s key lieutenant, Dominic Cummings, has a different set of priorities. He favors tax cuts concentrated on the lower-paid; greater investment in public services; a more punitive attitude toward crime, with longer prison sentences; and a move to a points-based immigration system. These are popular pledges, but tax cuts and higher state spending would be extremely expensive.
To which faction does the prime minister belong? It is hard to tell. His cabinet is a hodgepodge of libertarian free-marketeers and more community-minded advocates of blue-collar conservativism. Johnson was a pro-immigration social liberal when mayor of London, but was the face of what critics saw as a nativist campaign for Brexit. “With Boris, what people would call pragmatism in Theresa May or David Cameron is a bit more opportunism,” says Ryan Shorthouse of the center-right think tank Bright Blue, referring to Johnson’s two immediate predecessors. His government offers little ideological consistency, combining those who Shorthouse says have a “let the free market rip” attitude with more centrist politicians. For every cabinet member who wants to declare war on red tape, there’s another arguing for tougher regulation of the environment and animal welfare, causes that are popular with the young voters the party has had trouble attracting.