Tony Blair likes to tell a story about his first day as prime minister in 1997. He swept into Downing Street on a wave of cheers, only to be greeted by the head of the civil service, who said brusquely — “Congratulations, prime minister. Now what?”
Boris Johnson will face a similar question as he returns to Number 10, after the most sweeping general election victory since Mr Blair’s in 2001. If he wants to go down as a great prime minister, he will have to create a new political settlement for Britain abroad — as well as at home.
Mr Johnson won on the basis of a slogan rather than a programme. But “Get Brexit Done” will only get him to the end of January, and Britain’s formal exit from the EU. Then, the real questions about Britain’s role will begin. The country’s international future will hang on whether Mr Johnson and his advisers can come up with plausible answers.
There is a gloomy version of how this story unfolds. In this telling, “Get Brexit done” will be swiftly revealed as an empty phrase. In reality, it will take many years to negotiate a trade deal — during which Britain’s economy will suffer from uncertainty and lack of investment. The UK’s diplomatic influence will wither away outside the EU. It will become more vulnerable to bullying by China and the US. The country will turn inwards, its politics will get nastier, and it will be threatened by break-up as Scotland pushes for independence.
All of this is perfectly possible. But it is not inevitable. Let us imagine that things go better for Britain in the world. What would that look like? And what would it take to make it happen?
It is true that Brexit will not be “done”, the moment Britain leaves the EU. There will be difficult trade negotiations with the EU to come, which are likely to take much longer than the year that Mr Johnson has promised. But the prime minister has already shown that he can crash through political and diplomatic deadlines, without paying a heavy price. That can be done again.
Mr Johnson’s real goal should be the banalisation of Brexit. He must turn the negotiation of a new trade deal with the EU, however protracted, into a boring, bureaucratic process that mostly stays out of the headlines. That will help suck some of the poison out of Britain’s political system and its relationship with the EU.
Banalising Brexit will not be easy because the issues are complex — and made more so by Mr Johnson’s clear desire to diverge considerably from current EU rules. However, the negotiations may not be quite as protracted as some critics predict. There is a strong will in both Brussels and London to get a deal done as quickly as possible — since both sides are heartily sick of Brexit.
The record of the first phase of negotiations shows that, at the last minute, both the EU and the UK tend to shy away from head-on collisions. And Mr Johnson has managed to establish a decent rapport with key EU leaders. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, has said of him: “He’s a leader with a real strategic vision. Those who didn’t take him seriously were wrong.”
The British economy has a few sectors that are genuinely world-leading and the Johnson government will have to go all-out to protect and promote them in trade talks. They include finance, legal services, pharmaceuticals, education, tourism and creative industries. A swift zero-tariffs trade deal with the EU will not be worth having, if it is bought at the expense of the services sector.
The Johnson government cannot afford to let minor industries such as fisheries dictate the UK’s strategy, however politically potent they are.
Prolonged negotiations would create uncertainty, which could take a toll on growth. But the British economy has proved surprisingly robust in the face of three-and-a-half years of uncertainty since the Brexit vote — with the UK growing at roughly the same pace as France and Germany.
The long-term aim must be to move beyond trade negotiations and to create a new political relationship with Britain’s closest neighbours.
The other key European powers, in particular France and Germany, understand the value of the UK as a military, intelligence, diplomatic and trading partner — particularly in an era of American unilateralism and growing Chinese power. Mr Macron has spoken of setting up “a European Security Council with the UK on board.” The details are sketchy, but the idea is definitely worth building on.
The “global Britain” slogan, favoured by Mr Johnson, is often mocked as some sort of post-imperial fantasy. But it does point to a genuine advantage. Britain is an unusually connected country — with economic, cultural and security ties all over the world.
The US and the UK are neck-and-neck for the number of world leaders who have been educated in their countries. (The figures in 2018 were 58 for the US and 57 for the UK — with France on 40 and Russia on 10). Britain remains one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The possibility of a new trade deal with the US is portrayed by many Johnsonians as Brexit’s big potential prize. But it will be politically contentious on both sides of the Atlantic. Rather than attempting to secure a large package deal immediately, the UK and the US could start with some small-scale sectoral deals that are mutually advantageous — for example on visas and immigration for high-skilled workers, where post-Brexit Britain will have new flexibility.
If Mr Johnson is looking for an “oven-ready” trade deal — to use one of his favourite phrases — the UK should look at joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the third largest trade bloc in the world, spanning countries as diverse as Australia, Japan and Mexico. The obvious objection is that the UK is not a Pacific country. But Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, has said that he would welcome a UK application to join.
The way in which Japan moved to save the TPP, after Mr Trump withdrew the US from it in 2017, demonstrated that medium-sized powers like Japan have a clear interest in preserving international rules — at a time when both the US and China are challenging the multilateral order. Post-Brexit Britain will share that interest and should work with other midsized G20 powers that share its global outlook, including Australia, Canada and South Korea.
Destabilised by Brexit, the UK Foreign Office has drifted into the language of social work. Diplomats drone on about “the conversations we need to have with other stakeholders”. British foreign policy has focused on safe policies like development aid, or inward-looking goals such as developing a more diverse diplomatic corps.
The Johnson government will attempt to focus foreign policy more tightly on the traditional goal of promoting the national interest. It is suggestive that an influential member of Mr Johnson’s Downing Street policy unit is Prof John Bew — author of a book on “realpolitik”, which he casts as a “necessary antidote to the perceived excess of idealism in Anglo-American foreign policy of the post-cold war era”.
Defining the national interest is, of course, contentious. But “peace and prosperity” is a decent start. The maintenance of internal political stability and territorial integrity are also critical goals — given the wide political divisions opened by Brexit and the growing threat of Scottish independence.
While these may sound like internal goals, Brexit has demonstrated that the traditional dividing line between foreign and domestic policy has broken down. Indeed the whole process can be seen as a decision to sacrifice some international influence, in favour of the need for a new domestic political settlement.
The understandable urge to rebuild British power and influence in the post-Brexit era will need to remain closely linked to the goal of internal political cohesion. There is unlikely to be a stable consensus for more military spending — or more active deployment of the British military overseas — unless the government can make a convincing link with domestic concerns.
A renewed emphasis on realpolitik might confirm the suspicions of Mr Johnson’s liberal critics, who see the prime minister as the British standard bearer of a global wave of illiberalism: “Britain Trump” as the US president has dubbed him.
A key task for Mr Johnson will be to demonstrate that he is better than this. His goal at home must be to accommodate the populist discontent that drove Brexit — without leading the country into an intolerant, inward-looking cul-de-sac.
If he can succeed in doing this, Mr Johnson might be able to convince a sceptical world that Brexit is not some weird act of self-harm, or Britain’s resignation from international society. Instead, it could show how the centre-right around the world can respond to populism — without succumbing to the authoritarian temptation.
That project involves a reassertion of the importance of the nation, and an emphasis on issues such as citizenship and borders that make many liberals uncomfortable.
But if that effort reconciles discontented voters to the state — and helps to bridge the gap between elites and ordinary people — it may actually stabilise democracy rather than undermine it.
If Mr Johnson’s Britain can accommodate populism and still remain a prosperous, tolerant and open country, then the prime minister will have established a new political settlement within the UK. And, in so doing, he will lay out a new basis for Britain’s relations with the outside world.