LONDON — When all this is over, Boris Johnson will face a dilemma.
While the world is currently in fire-fighting mode — and the British prime minister is quite literally battling COVID-19 himself — eventually the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic consequences of mitigating it will have to be addressed.
Johnson — who had hoped to lead the U.K. into the post-Brexit era with increased public spending fueled by higher borrowing — will instead find himself balancing the books after a deep economic shock.
Like his old school foe and predecessor David Cameron, Johnson will be a post-crisis prime minister.
Cameron responded to the aftermath of the financial crisis by cutting spending. Johnson, who vowed during last year’s election to reverse the austerity that has defined Conservative governments since 2010, may have little political room to do the same. An anxious British public have rarely been more grateful for their public servants, especially those working on the frontline of the National Health Service. It would be a brave prime minister who took the knife to public services again.
No-one knows how or when the coronavirus outbreak will end, but one thing is already certain: The economic consequences will be huge.
At the same time, the imperative to balance the books and ensure sound government finances will be greater than ever in a post-pandemic world where the U.K.’s vulnerability to sudden, unexpected economic crises and the need to save for a rainy day will be more obvious than ever.
That could leave just one option, which Conservative prime ministers never like to entertain: raising taxes.