Amid the varied ramblings of Boris Johnson’s victory speech — quite a feat to aim for Churchill but end appealing to the nation’s “dudes” — there was at least one moment of clarity.
“If you look at the history of the last two hundred years of this party’s existence,” he said, “you will see that it is we, Conservatives, who have had the greatest . . . insights into how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart.”
Johnson might have intended this line to set up a homespun parable about the need to balance the desires to own a house and to share your wealth (a view of society’s dilemmas from above if there ever was one) but instincts will, in fact, play an important role in framing the Johnson premiership.
For the right-wing of British politics, Boris Johnson’s ascent represents a return of the repressed. Those things that had previously been “unsayable” — about immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, the lower classes — are now legitimate fodder. Every obnoxious bore who idolizes Jeremy Clarkson and says political correctness when he means health and safety regulations just got a shot in the arm.
Of course, the reality is that each of these “unsayable” things have been said, repeatedly, for many years in the British press. Often by Johnson himself. The much-vaunted pre-Brexit years of Blair, Brown, and Cameron featured concerted campaigns against asylum seekers, benefit cheats, and any number of other anathema. But this process has intensified since 2016, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson will add further velocity to the cycle.
For the Left, instincts matter too. The immediate urge will be to condemn Boris Johnson’s character, to remind people of his history of racist buffoonery and expose him as a charlatan. In many ways, this is understandable. But it is unlikely to be effective.
That approach echoes the response of the Italian and American lefts (the major center-left Democratic Parties and their liberal media allies) to the rise of Berlusconi and Trump. In both cases, politics soon became almost entirely enveloped by their personas. And the Clown Kings benefitted from the pantomime.
Berlusconi and Trump, like Johnson, used the media and entertainment industry to build their political careers. They did it not in the first instance by taking political stands but by cultivating personas which were designed to make them relatable to a much broader audience than were interested in formal politics.
While Johnson followed a more orthodox political route, he leveraged even his major roles — as mayor of London and foreign secretary — in much the same way. Each was harnessed, either by way of tactical gaffes or high-profile media interventions, to provide maximum opportunity for presenting Boris as the somewhat-dithering, self-mocking, but ultimately relatable court jester of British politics.
When such a figure rises to political leadership the instinct of particularly the more established parts of the Left is to point out their various transgressions. The public are directed towards the lies and scandals that make them unfit to govern, or towards the norms that they are eroding. In due course we will be told that Boris Johnson too has sullied the office of prime minister — even though it is the filthier aspects of the office’s history, covered by a blanket of imperial nostalgia, that make a figure like Boris Johnson possible in the first place.
In Italy and America, this eventually became politics by prosecution. Berlusconi was engaged in a soap opera of court appearances, appeals, and legal spats. Trump was subject to the Mueller inquiry. Both produced plenty of evidence of wrongdoing, neither brought their man down. In fact, they provided each protagonist with a stage from which they could denounce a deeply unpopular political establishment.
We have already seen one unsuccessful attempt to bring Boris Johnson before the courts. In the coming weeks and months, this will likely become a prominent theme of the anti-Boris campaign in the media, with revelations about his personal finances or conduct with Vote Leave prompting excitable commentators to proclaim they have finally found the scandal that will bring him down.
Boris Johnson, meanwhile, will use this as part of a project to polarize British politics entirely on the basis of a Brexit culture war. He will rail against the “Remain establishment,” caricatured as a transnational liberal elite with little connection to “British values.” And if this doesn’t work, he will push the boat out further — engineering a controversy about some group he wants to demagogue, maybe Muslims, or migrants, or old favorites like the trade unions.
This is what Boris Johnson wants British politics to look like for the foreseeable future: Boris and anti-Boris, where he sets the agenda with his public performances while his opponents desperately try to react. Meanwhile, politics is evacuated of debate over the kind of policies that might improve working people’s lives.
But that is not how it has to be. The Tory leadership campaign made clear Boris Johnson’s greatest weakness. When cornered by his bid’s lack of substance and forced to announce a policy, the best Johnson could do was propose a massive tax cut for the rich. Realizing how poorly this had played in a country with massive inequality and the longest wage stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars, he soon backed off these plans.
Within weeks, however, he reverted to form — telling an audience of Tory members that he “couldn’t think of anyone who stood up for bankers” more during the financial crash. “I defended them,” he said, “day in, day out.”
Even a lifelong right-winger like Theresa May was forced to conclude that the party would need to move left on the economy after overseeing a decade of austerity. Her speech on assuming the premiership sounded at times almost social democratic. Johnson’s, by contrast, offered hardly any reference to the economy at all — save for a bizarre line at the end which attempted to inspire the audience with an offering of full-fiber broadband.
In a country with such deep economic frustrations, it is telling that this is what Johnson thought would move the public. Compare his barren offering with Labour’s: introducing a real living wage, nationalizing rail, mail, energy, and water, building 100,000 council houses per year, banning zero-hour contracts, introducing free childcare, abolishing tuition fees, ending punitive benefit sanctions, stopping the privatization of the National Health Service, a transition to green energy producing thousands of jobs. No wonder the Tories want a culture war.
Boris Johnson will soon face a defining moment of his premiership. On October 31, he will either have to abandon a substantial portion of his base or drag the country into an unpopular no-deal Brexit. No amount of “Churchillian” spirit — and his attempts to invoke this during his speech were almost comically weak — will overcome this political reality.
But for Labour the coming weeks are also important. There will be considerable pressure to join an anti-Boris campaign, abandoning the party’s transformational program to coalesce with whatever establishment ghoul finds the Prime Minister’s latest scandal too unseemly.
The price of such an alliance has already been made clear by Jo Swinson, newly elected leader of the Lib Dems: ditch Jeremy Corbyn. Take Boris on not with a plan to improve millions of people’s lives but with vagaries about “progressive values,” outrage over his transgressions against established politics, and a nostalgia for the recent past.
It’s easy to see the appeal of uniting all those who oppose Boris Johnson. But diluting Labour’s politics is exactly the wrong way to beat him. The only way to stop the political and moral void Johnson brings to Downing Street consuming the entire political horizon is to make it confront day-to-day hardships. Hardships his party and his class have forced on so many for so long.