LONDON – Boris Johnson and Joseph R. Biden Jr. are not political bedfellows. But the British Prime Minister and the American presidential candidate have one thing in common: they both clung to Franklin D. Roosevelt as a model for leading into an era of economic collapse and social upheaval.
Johnson, reorganizing himself after three difficult months with the coronavirus pandemic, invoked the name Roosevelt and the legacy of the New Deal by promising that the British government will step up its plans for ambitious public works projects and other expenses to recover from the epidemic.
Biden, the alleged Democratic candidate, spoke of the need for federal FDR-style intervention to lift the United States from the economic disaster left by the virus and to address racial injustice dramatized by the killing of black Americans in the hands of the police.
Neither man is an obvious heir to Roosevelt’s cloak, although Mr. Biden is from at least the same side. Johnson is a conservative populist who ran on a platform to drag Britain out of the European Union and, until now, had modeled himself on Roosevelt’s ally at war, Winston Churchill.
However, there are signs that Mr. Johnson’s flirtation with Roosevelt goes beyond the loss of his name. One of his closest advisors, Michael Gove, recently presented a government plan that relies heavily on the 32nd president to justify a transformation of bureaucracy and a new approach to government.
“Roosevelt acknowledged that in the face of a crisis that had shaken confidence in the government, a change in staff and rhetoric was not simply necessary, but a change in structure, ambition and organization,” said Gove in a conference at the Ditchley Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Anglo-American relations.
Gove recalled outsiders to the reform that Roosevelt introduced to design the New Deal – Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes and others – and complained about the lack of such figures in the British government.
Johnson and his associates have argued that British civilian service is blocked, risk-averse and hostile to its pro-Brexit ideology. On Sunday, Mr. Johnson announced the departure of the country’s chief official, Mark Sedwill, who was cabinet secretary and national security adviser.
His resignation follows that of senior officials from the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as from British ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch. It’s a victory for Dominic Cummings, Mr. Johnson’s most influential adviser, who sees many civil servants as part of what he calls an establishment “block” that also includes the BBC, parts of the judiciary and universities. In a line that has been widely repeated, he told the aides that “a heavy rain is coming” for the bureaucracy.
The government wants “to have a more politically directed civil service, which is not necessarily a politicized civil service, but which they believe is responsive to political direction,” said Simon Fraser, former head of the Foreign Ministry. “Where you have to be careful is if it turns upside down in an attack on the impartiality of the civil service.”
On Tuesday, Johnson is expected to visit a city in a region in economic crisis to outline plans for investing in infrastructure, education and technology, testing its New Deal strategy. He promised to “level up” the places left by the British economy, where prosperity flowed disproportionately to London and south-east England.
Fulfilling this promise is critical to Mr. Johnson’s long-term fortunes, as his political base is very different from that of previous Conservative Party prime ministers. Johnson won with the support of working class voters in the Midlands and the north, many of whom have historically voted for the Labor Party but have favored Brexit and are socially conservative on issues such as immigration.
“Boris Johnson won the election by developing a new left tilt formula for economics and culture, promising to offer Brexit and reform immigration,” said Matthew Goodwin, an expert on the right and a visiting senior member. at Chatham House, a research institute in London.
“He’s talking about giving them trains, bridges and schools,” said Goodwin. “But I suspect that what this community wants is more power in decision making and more say in the national conversation.”
Reassuring these voters on social and cultural issues could be as important as promising them economic benefits, which is why Mr. Johnson’s administration has maintained such a profound vein of social conservatism. He likes to present himself as the enemy of the London-based political elite who claims not to be in contact with large areas of the country. Mr. Johnson’s vitrified defense against protesters who defaced a Churchill statue is also part of this strategy.
As debates about racial injustice continue to reverberate in Britain – and as Mr. Johnson struggles to hold his electoral coalition together – some analysts predict that he may begin to look more like President Trump than President Roosevelt.
Unlike Mr. Biden, for whom a victory in November would empower a larger liberal program in the United States, Mr. Johnson rules as a conservative, although he is still considered more moderate than Mr. Trump.
Analysts note that Mr. Johnson is trying to turn Margaret Thatcher’s party, with her belief in low taxes, lighter regulation and less government, into something akin to a European-style Social Democratic party, at least on economic issues. The way he places that circle is far from clear.
“A Rooseveltian New Deal strategy would go down pretty well with a large part of the electorate and even with the conservative electorate,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University. “The problem he has is that this is not what most of his MPs have joined the Conservative Party.”
Furthermore, it is not clear that Mr. Johnson will be lucky enough to see through a revolutionary program like the New Deal. Critics note that he is not a politician driven by conviction. His political agenda is largely devised by Mr. Cummings. While Mr. Johnson had the tactical skills to shape a winning coalition, some doubt that he has the vision to lead his country through epochal changes.
“F.D.R. he was someone who had an extraordinary intuitive feeling of where the audience was and what the mood of the country was, “said Robert Dallek, an American presidential historian who published a biography of Roosevelt in 2017.” Anyone like Boris Johnson have it? “