Why Boris Johnson is not the British version of Trump

July 29, 2019 11:15
Britain's new Prime Minister Boris Johnson is likely to adopt a more congenial attitude towards China. Photo: Reuters

The United Kingdom's new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has often been regarded as the British version of Donald Trump, his popularity gained primarily from the Brexit situation.

Last month, in a seminar on Britain's withdrawal from the European Union organized by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, a Briton in the audience objected to my comparing Johnson with the US president, and presented his argument.

After the seminar, he came to talk to me in fluent Cantonese. Apparently, he once worked in Johnson's campaign office and was responsible for arranging Johnson’s visit to Hong Kong. Johnson is very different from Trump, even if they have very similar hairstyles, he quipped.

Trump is anti-elitist

First, Trump has a longstanding hatred of the elite, and his objection to the language and power of the traditional elite has gained him much support.

However, Johnson himself comes from the conservative, political elite just like former PM David Cameron. His position on Brexit is just an attention-seeking strategy.

Johnson’s friends are also from the same background, and thus are unlikely to create an "alternative right-wing" like Nigel Farage.

In his leadership of the Conservative Party, Johnson has merely followed the example of Winston Churchill, rather than act as a subversive outsider.

Trump wants to get rid of all kinds of binding international agreements. He and his allies have been supportive of Brexit.

Although Johnson can be seen as a Brexit supporter (actually he only changed stance right before the referendum), he supports multilateralism.

Now that Brexit is happening, the country is in need of international allies more than ever. Johnson will no doubt be aware of this.

Desperate to find EU substitute

In this context, whether it is to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States or to ally itself with countries such as Canada, Australia or New Zealand, Johnson is keen to seek a substitute for Britain’s reliance on EU.

When we look at Trump, his stance towards China appears to shift from time to time, but it’s beyond argument that the US-China trade war started under his rule.

On the other hand, now that the UK is leaving Europe, it will not risk losing a huge market like China.

In the UK administration, there is also no equivalent of anti-Chinese politicians such as Peter Navarro in the US. It is likely that Britain will adopt a much more congenial position towards China.

On Hong Kong, Johnson has far less interest in Hong Kong affairs than his opponent Jeremy Hunt. It seems that he will be more concerned with Beijing’s reaction than Trump. Since the US-China trade relations have become a structural problem, Johnson might have hopes of becoming a mediator of sorts, rather than adopting the US stance.

Overall, the most urgent task for Johnson will be to tackle Brexit and to seek a transitional package for Britain, particularly with regard to the economy, diplomatic relations and social development. There will be little time or scope left to work on other policies.

Regardless of his style, Johnson has already moved in to 10 Downing Street, so it is quite likely that he will follow the mainstream, rather than be converted into a Trump-like figure.

For one thing, his work is much bounded by Brexit. Moreover, there seems little incentive for him to transform the current system dramatically.

His image on social media may be quite different from the truth.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 26

Translation by Jennifer Wong

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal