Boris Johnson won. Now the Trump comparisons will be put to the test
Boris Johnson has often been compared to Donald Trump, and for reasons that go beyond their distinctive blonde hairstyles. The UK’s shift to the right—starting with the Brexit referendum in 2016, a few months before Trump’s victory—is said to resemble America’s. Now that Johnson’s Conservative party won a massive parliamentary majority in a general election this week, we’re going to see how apt the comparisons really are.
One school of thought holds that Johnson’s majority will unleash his inner social liberal, veering him away from a populist agenda that feeds off a sense of grievance, a smirking ignorance, and thinly veiled xenophobia. The morning after his extraordinary victory, Johnson spoke about bringing “closure” to years of polarizing Brexit debate and declared, “let the healing begin.”
With a clear majority, Johnson is, in theory, no longer in hock to the hardline Brexiteer faction within his party, which means that the UK’s now-assured exit from the EU can avoid the worst-case disruptions to trade and supply chains. On other issues, Johnson’s campaign pledges—cutting immigration, introducing voter ID rules—resemble something that US Republicans would support, but in the UK there is little serious debate on the right to abortion and none on gun control. Previous Conservative governments haven’t done enough to address climate change, but they don’t deny its existence. Johnson has promised not to privatize the National Health Service, the country’s pillar of social welfare, and appears less beholden to the austere spending stance of his predecessors.
If Johnson embraces his liberal tendencies, it would be in line with a powerful force growing within the business community—putting purpose at the heart of strategy. Quartz recently published a series entitled “The New Purpose of Companies,” examining what firms are doing to improve themselves or the world. For a long time, traditional capitalism offered companies a get-out clause in the form of “shareholder accountability,” a narrow approach not unlike politicians pandering solely to their base.
This tenet, championed by Milton Friedman, held that the best way a company could serve society was by making money for its shareholders. But that’s changing. A few months ago, the Business Roundtable group of CEOs of blue chip US companies said that business is accountable to a broader constituency that includes customers, employees, communities, and the planet itself.
If Johnson lurches to the right, giving less room to environmental policy and caring less for the vulnerable, he’ll be on the wrong side of a movement many businesses are now demonstrably embracing. UK stocks and the British pound rose sharply on the election results, suggesting that business is banking on Johnson to do the right thing. Many expected the same from Trump.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief newsletter.