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Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ could alienate his own MPs



LONDON — Boris Johnson has another Brexit circle to square.

The U.K. prime minister’s hopes of a buccaneering, free-trading “Global Britain” outside the bloc could put him at odds with voters who demand protection from globalization’s sharp edges.

It’s just one of the many post-Brexit challenges a group of academics and former ministers get stuck into in a new report trying to flesh out the Global Britain project. For starters, they argue, it needs to be about much more than international trade.

The Labour Party’s former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, now a professor at King’s College London, and scholars from Harvard University want a strategy that also articulates a clear vision for immigration. The want to keep the United Kingdom’s union together. And they say ‘Global Britain’ must mean economic growth in the parts of the U.K. less able to benefit from globalization — all while avoiding a re-run of 19th century “imperial Britain.”

That is easier said than done. The U.K. has retained clout and assets to make it attractive for business after Brexit, but it is no longer an industrial powerhouse, said co-author Nyasha Weinberg. She pointed out that the U.K.’s share of global trade has fallen sharply, and it is too small a country both economically and militarily to try to take on the kind of role the U.S., China, India or the EU could.

This will constrain the search for Global Britain’s upsides — a task handed to David Frost in his new capacity as Cabinet minister for all matters Brexit. 

To begin with, the government has realized that reviving multilateral trade is a difficult long-term challenge for Britain. The report quotes two senior British government officials who acknowledge that nobody in Whitehall is particularly optimistic about the U.K.’s chances of making massive strides on multilateral trade or reviving the World Trade Organization. The government’s focus will be on bilateral and multilateral deals instead, the officials are quoted as saying. However, Weinberg warned that the U.K.’s future agreements “must not alienate” the EU, Britain’s most significant partner even after Brexit.

Global Britain also faces a tough search for opportunities to improve regulations and set the rules of the game internationally, the scholars said. “The U.K. is too small to impose its regulatory approach on the world, and too large to simply be a rule-taker, brokerage and innovation offer an alternative,” Weinberg said. “Regulatory divergence from the EU is challenging, but leading or brokering regulatory reform requires risk-taking. In financial services there are opportunities; in data privacy, the risk of antagonizing the EU may be too great.”

Yet the biggest challenge for the Global Britain concept might come from the government’s other big agenda: “Leveling Up.” That flagship promise held out the prospect of big state intervention and infrastructure spending to boost run-down towns and cities that helped hand the prime minister his election victory in 2019.

Jo Johnson, former universities minister and the prime minister’s brother, made clear at the launch of the report that while Global Britain is championed by MPs in south east England who back free trade, liberalism and de-regulation, leveling up is fundamentally protectionist. It’s pushed by Tory MPs elected in former Labour strongholds in northern England, who want heavy safeguards for communities feeling the downsides of a global economy.

“The challenge is how the government can ensure they don’t undermine each other, but support each other,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure yet the government is articulating a clear vision as to how that is going to work.”

This insight is from POLITICO‘s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Transition Pro subscribers. To request a trial, email pro@politico.eu.



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