Britain Is Fraying. Why Did Boris Johnson Get Reelected?

The country’s departure from the European Union can no longer camouflage its deep problems.

Lights are put on display at 10 Downing Street with the London Eye in the background
Toby Melville / Reuters

Britain has officially left the European Union—not with a bong, but a whimper. The muted celebrations reflected the country’s divisions, but also another fundamental law of politics: Triumph has a very short half-life.

For three and a half years, Brexit has dominated the news agenda and the parliamentary timetable. Now, though, its existential questions—What kind of country are we? Will we ever leave?—have been supplanted by technical ones, about trade deals and customs rules. That is less appealing to a non-specialist audience. And so domestic politics has come roaring back.

It is hard to overestimate quite how much time and energy Brexit has demanded from Britain’s politicians since the referendum. When the resigning Prime Minister Theresa May gave a speech outside Downing Street last year, her handful of small achievements paled beside her grand failure to deliver an exit deal. What went entirely unmentioned, of course, was the opportunity cost of the time spent figuring out how to leave the EU. The years of deadlock were years when Britain’s overheated housing market, its personal debt crisis, and its low productivity smoldered in the background. Since 2016, Brexit has been an oxygen thief. While an interminable series of “knife-edge votes” dominated the headlines, other political stories—even the staples such as health, education, and social care—have been pushed down the agenda. Although it ultimately cost May her job, this Brexit monomania nevertheless helped the Conservatives overall by drowning out grumbles about the state of public services.

For three years, negotiating and trying to pass a deal has left little bandwidth for anything else, while the civil service has been busy developing new immigration rules, creating new regulatory bodies for medicines and the environment, and making contingency plans for a chaotic “no deal” exit. In the parliamentary session that ran from 2017 to 2019, the government chose to put forward only three big, controversial bills (on counterterrorism, data protection, and criminal communications), according to Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society, an independent research trust. “Once you get past that, it’s wild animals in circuses,” she told me, referring to a law on animal welfare. “They’re not unimportant, but they’re not government-defining bills.” Even so, when Boris Johnson suspended Parliament last autumn, a dozen pieces of legislation had not finished their passage through the House of Commons, and so had to be abandoned.

This neglect is alarming, because the effects of 10 years of cuts to public services have started to show. “Satisfaction with the [National Health Service] sits at its lowest level for more than a decade, driven by concerns about a lack of money, staff shortages and mounting waiting times,” the independent King’s Fund think tank reported last year. The OECD found that British 15-year-olds ranked 69th among their peers in 72 countries in self-reported life satisfaction. For some, this grim picture will be hard to reconcile with the fact that Boris Johnson won a resounding majority in December. But he did so on a slender manifesto that threw the focus onto his pledge to “get Brexit done.” Now that he can credibly claim to have achieved that—or at least, the legal formalities—other issues will demand his attention. So what should be at the top of his list?

The NHS is the obvious place to start. Johnson promised to pass a bill by March securing its future: Money has been allocated for new hospitals, more staff, and more appointments with family doctors. This will relieve the immediate pressures, but “it’s not a bonanza by historical standards,” Sally Warren, the director of policy at Kings Fund, told me. The underlying problem is the NHS workforce. The service has about 100,000 vacancies. One in 20 NHS staff in England is an EU national, and their post-Brexit future is uncertain. Morale is low. One in five employees left their post in the 2017–18 financial year.

The Conservative manifesto also promised more money for schools, whose funding has not kept pace with rising numbers of students. They are struggling to cope with disruptive students, so exclusions are increasing. A survey by a labor union found that 45 percent of teachers had bought clothes, food, or soap for poor students in the past year. Two-thirds of headteachers have cut staff to save money. “We have far too many children with no heating in the home, no food in the cupboards, washing themselves with cold water, walking to school with holes in their shoes,” Sarah Bone, the headteacher of Headlands school in Yorkshire, told The Guardian.

The troubles suffered by poor students demonstrate the harsh reality of public-sector cuts. Think of it as austerity whack-a-mole: Cuts in one area put pressure on others. Take money out of social care, and elderly people get stuck in the hospital. Take money out of welfare, and you get hungry children who can’t learn. Take money out of youth services, and gang and knife crime rises. Everything is connected.

The most striking example of this is the constellation of problems caused by cuts to local councils, which have lost nearly 60 percent of the funding that the central government previously gave them. The knock-on effects can be seen across the public realm: Six hundred youth clubs have closed in the past decade; 800 libraries have gone; public-health measures, such as anti-smoking campaigns and nutritional awareness, were excluded from the “ring fence” that protected the NHS budget during austerity, resulting in avoidable illnesses costing the health service billions of pounds. “We spend more on obesity than on the police, the judiciary, and the fire service combined,” the Labour politician Stella Creasy told me. “A sugar tax is nowhere near where we need to be.” Plans to give councils more powers—to set their own business tax rates, for example, or experiment with basic income—were a casualty of the Brexit black hole.

It is reasonable to ask: If public services are under such strain, then why has the Conservative party just been reelected for a fourth term? If there really is a crisis, why haven’t people noticed—and punished those responsible at the ballot box? “What local councils increasingly do is focus on the most vulnerable in society,” Adam Lent, the director of the independent New Local Government Network think-tank, told me. “Those people most definitely have noticed. If you go to the most poor parts of the country, community centers are closing, libraries are closing. Disabled adults, vulnerable adults, people who need lots of social care, have been hit—but that’s not the majority.”

Frances Crook of the Howard League, which campaigns on penal reform, took a similar view. She told me that the public service most likely to provoke a full-scale political crisis for the government was emergency medicine—people waiting longer than they would have before for an ambulance, and then yet more time to be seen by a doctor. “If you’re middle class, you can buy your way out of everything else,” she said. In her own arena, Crook hoped the government would be “radical” about reforming the criminal-justice system, rather than merely building more jails.

Health care, education, local services, prison reform—these are just a selection of the policy areas vying for Boris Johnson’s attention, competing with reactive decisions such as the future of the High Speed 2 rail project, and his aide Dominic Cummings’s desire to reform the government itself, abolishing and merging ministries. Finding extra money for pet projects will be even tougher, because Johnson has promised no rises in three big sources of revenue: sales tax, income tax, and national insurance. The chancellor Sajid Javid has already asked departments to identify 5 percent cuts ahead of the Budget in March.

And, of course, Brexit is far from “done”. Although the government has an 80-seat majority, it could face internal dissent over how far it diverges from the EU on, say, food standards. Managing rebellions takes time and energy, as will the process of drafting the legislation for Britain’s post-EU future.

The passing of the country’s exit date has changed one big thing, though. Unlike his predecessors, Johnson will not have the option of blaming the EU for holding Britain back with its nitpicking rules and sluggish bureaucracy. Britain is now in a transition period in which its rules and regulations remain aligned to the EU, but when that ends on December 31, he will have what Brexiteers have always argued for: sovereignty. Being sovereign means taking responsibility. You Brexit, you bought it. The buck cannot be passed, and the prime minister’s overloaded inbox cannot be ignored.