When history writes the story of Boris Johnson’s premiership, it will not be a history of cake, of parties or of the sexual harassment story that eventually brought him down. What history will write instead is that he turned the Brexit ship around and delivered the only Brexit that could actually work, went some way to resolving the delicate and difficult issues of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) (work still in progress) and imparted a sense of confidence and national calling to the country.
As a recent Rand study has noted, countries succeed or fail not because of technocratic successes or failures, but because they either have a sense of purpose and calling or they don’t.
Boris Johnson got the fact that Brexit had given the UK a national calling, to catalyse a slowing global trading system and to help architect the global operating system for the future. The choice we made was to opt not for the EU’s precautionary, hazard based approach to regulatory systems with its market distortions, but a more common law based approach which enshrines competition on the merits as a normative organising framework.
This then underpins the work that Jacob Rees Mogg, as Brexit Opportunities minister is now engaged in with regard to the UK’s regulatory reform. Allied to that, a robust international trade policy that delivers actual liberalisation gains is critical – and if the UK has open regulatory settings, then this is much easier to do.
Liz Truss, and then Anne-Marie Trevelyan, have successfully pursued this policy, but much remains to be done, in particular finishing the CPTPP accession and critically doing everything possible to pursue deals with the US at federal and state level (as Penny Mordaunt is successfully doing as international trade minister).
Whether the trade deals we actually negotiate lead to actual liberalisation is also vital. Not everything labelled a trade agreement is actually trade liberalisation. But the PM leaves with a lot of unfinished business which is still on the table.
The next Prime Minister’s task will be to finish it, and it will not be easy. Deciding to leave the EU was the easy part. Once you assert your independence, what you do with it is much, much more difficult.
So what should we look for?
Commitment to Regulatory Reform and Competition on the Merits
It is through pro-competitive regulation that we can deliver lower costs for people suffering from rising energy, food and transportation costs. The only economic benefits of Brexit, I have often said, are in the areas of your external trade policy and your domestic regulatory reform. There are significant economic gains to be had in improving the UK’s regulatory system, and ensuring the guiding principle of regulation is competition.
But what will the new PM do when faced with powerful calls by incumbents to retain anti-competitive regulation? Will they cave in because their core moral philosophy is not strong enough, or will they advocate for consumers, new entrants and the process of competition? What evidence can they show? Being caught between incumbent power and competitive forces is rather like being a kite caught in a hurricane. How will they react in this situation, and how have they reacted to similar situations before?
Commitment to Actual Trade Liberalisation
It is not enough to announce lots of trade deals. These deals must actually improve on (i.e. be more liberalising) than the existing trading system. The UK is in a unique position of pushing a reduction of not only the obvious border trade barriers but also domestic behind-the-border barriers and distortions. We are in a unique position where we can argue for a distortion reduction agenda around the world, but especially with the US, our closest ally for third countries such as China, Russia and others where distortions are deliberately used for commercial advantage.
Commitment to Property Rights protection in all its forms
How strongly will the new PM defend property rights including intellectual property rights? The Johnson government, in particular Anne-Marie Trevelyan, did a great deal but it was a lonely job doing so at the recent WTO Ministerial Conference when all around her were collapsing in the face of huge political pressure.
While others spend their time virtue signalling, the UK stood firm. Can we rely on a future PM to defend the core intellectual property rights of British firms, or will they collapse in the face of NGO pressure?
Unfinished business In Northern Ireland
The current government position which has support across multiple communities in Northern Ireland is that the Northern Ireland Protocol does need to be modified in order for it to deliver as free flow as possible for goods moving from GB to NI. The NIP bill does represent a good faith effort to find a workable plan that does not tear up the NIP, but does modify it, consistent with its overall framework and spirit. It does represent where we might have got to if we had more time to negotiate it and put it where it belongs in the Brexit UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
The NIP is not a negotiating tactic, although clearly everyone acknowledges that an agreement with the EU would be better. But such an agreement requires their mandate to change, and anyone who has spent more than ten seconds negotiating with the EU will understand, they will simply not negotiate without a real incentive to do so.
Making the Machine Work for you
Does the candidate have a track record of ensuring that the giant, cumbersome Whitehall machine actually works for you? Clear direction is only a starting point. There is a real art to getting the best out of civil servants who can do great things when properly led and directed.
What is the candidate’s track record here? It is notoriously difficult to grip the government — it is rather like trying to grab a spinning wheel. Most ministers simply bounce off. A PM who cannot grip the government will end up as nothing more than a spokesman for others — often for the vested, incumbent interests who wield such vast political power.
Laser focus on the key issues we face
There is very limited time left to achieve the goals set out above — and this has nothing to do with when the next UK election will be. There is a global timetable which is much more urgent. Russian activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, increasing Chinese market distortions and belligerence in the South China Sea as well as their combined activities in Latin America, Asia and Africa is making the world an ever more dangerous place.
Perceptions that America is weak have fuelled despots around the world. Covid lockdowns and a commitment to energy policies around the world that limit production and increase prices through increasing regulatory burden have led to massive inflationary pressure that will destroy wealth from people. While this is terrible for poor people in rich countries, it is an absolute catastrophe for the poor in poor countries. There are potentially ten more Sri Lanka’s on the verge of collapse.
There is a battle for the global operating system being waged in which necessity has made the UK a major player. Everything we do must be aimed at winning that battle and delivering lower prices for consumers as a result. This is critical to fixing the cost of living crisis. It is this agenda and not massive government spending that will win the hearts and minds of people who are further down the socio-economic ladder, whether they are in red wall seats or not. Unless the agenda delivers on these, it should be discarded.
Ultimately, the next PM has to be able to deliver an aspiration-based society where you can succeed based on your hard work and merits. He or she has to succeed in making Brexit work for Britain and deliver a safer world for us and our children by ensuring that the UK fulfils its calling and purpose to help the network of liberty countries, as Liz Truss has called them, to win the battle for the world’s operating system, and effectively deal with the new global threats, China, Russia, and Iran.
Shanker Singham is CEO of Competere, and a former advisor to UK Secretary of State for International Trade and former cleared advisor to USTR and US Department of Commerce.