It’s fair to say that it was the size of Boris Johnson’s majority, rather than the victory itself, that proved the biggest surprise in the recent General Election. Few truly believed that a Labour Party, hampered by its unpopular leadership and seemingly unfathomable policy on Brexit, could win an outright majority.
Yet even some of the most pessimistic Labour supporters were shocked by the 80 seat majority Johnson was afforded by the British public – the Party’s largest since the days of Thatcher. It’s possible that even Johnson didn’t anticipate such a powerful mandate, given the narrowing of the polls in the final weeks of the campaign.
The Queen’s Speech the week after the election showed that Johnson was keen to move quickly and contrast the dynamism of his administration with the indecisiveness and ineffectiveness which defined that of his predecessor.
The Queen’s Speech featured a heavy populist tinge and had a big focus on law and order and security, with flagship pledges including commitments on immigration, violent offenders, sentencing and victim support. However, it also continued some of the broader themes around social justice that became quietly deprioritised under Theresa May, with mental health reform and big, if vague, aspirations on adult social care, as well as ambitious promises on infrastructure spending.
Although none will particularly bother the Prime Minister, three agenda setting events will dominate his immediate three months as leader of a majority government.
In January, the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill is the main event. At the time of writing it is just two stages away from receiving Royal Assent. Johnson’s majority has allowed it to pass through Parliament with ease, free from the risk of wrecking amendments or the complete loss of control the Government experienced in the Autumn.
In the next year or so Brexit negotiations will move on to the next stage of the process and debate will open up to determine both the specifics of a trade agreement and the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
In February, Johnson will turn his attention inward to a Cabinet reshuffle. This reshuffle could well be extensive and has been dubbed the ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre’. Among those rumoured to be in the firing line are Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom, Environment Secretary Theresa Villers, Commons Leader Jacob Rees Mogg , and Work & Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey.
Boris and his team are currently playing their cards close to their chest and little is known about the names and faces that could feature in his next Cabinet or the extent of change. What is certain is that Boris’ reshuffle is almost entirely in his gift and the necessities of internal party management that were so prominent under Theresa May will take more of a back seat.
With a new Cabinet in place, the 11th of March will then see the first budget of Johnson’s administration, the most revealing insight yet into this Government’s plans for the future. An overriding message of the budget is likely to be a push for greater equality between well-off regions, such as the South East, and less well-off regions, such as the Midlands and the North, where Johnson has made big electoral gains. Large funds for infrastructure investment, the acceleration of key transport projects, a revaluation of how the treasury calculates value for money to address historic bias toward the South and even a Department for the North have all been floated as potential means to achieve this. Crucially, how Johnson’s policies work for the North will be a significant factor in determining his 2024 re-election.
Alongside a commitment to ‘levelling up’ regions in the North, the budget will likely see Boris follow through on campaign promises and commitments made in the Queen’s Speech. It is likely that there will be an increase in National Insurance thresholds, greater protections for workers on zero-hour contracts and those going on maternity leave, potential charges on single-use plastics, a £1 billion fund for councils to tackle social care and assistance for first-time buyers and key workers in the housing market. Due to the size of his majority, there could also now be a new sense of confidence in the leadership that causes Johnson to bring large, yet unannounced policies to Parliament.
Much remains to be seen of how Boris Johnson’s Government will develop and grow into itself. Since the Blair and Brown days, Jonson’s is the first Government with true agency over each of its own actions. In 2010, the Conservatives were tied to the Liberal Democrats. In 2015 their hands were tied due to a small majority and the promise of a referendum on EU membership. By 2017 they were tangled in Brexit with a hung parliament.
Whether you are in favour of him or not, Johnson now has a real opportunity to set out and deliver on his agenda.