By Isabel Ringrose
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2792

Why the Boris Johnson act isn’t cutting it anymore

The prime minister is in trouble after two years of corruption, incompetence and contempt for working class lives.
Issue 2792
Boris Johnson on a trip to Scotland

Boris Johnson on a trip to Scotland last year (pics: Number 10)

After just two and a half years in the top job, it seems Boris Johnson’s days as prime minister could be numbered. At every stage of Johnson’s career he’s had a cleverly crafted persona—from bumbling buffoon to Britain’s version of Donald Trump, to Churchillian statesman.

But the man behind the mask, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, has always been an elite, working class hating, Etonian toff, mired in corruption, backhand deals and bigotry. Despite his attempts to pretend he’s different, he’s a classic Tory leader who has relied on populism and anti-establishment rhetoric to climb the career ladder.

Johnson is a particular example of a wider ideological mission for the Tories. Political populism is not just about devising policies that lots of people might support—all politicians do that. It is about wrapping what are actually pro-business ideas in what looks like a broader, cross-class appeal. It is the deliberate construction of an ideology that can assemble people into a winning electoral coalition.

For much of Tory history it was done through imperialism. And it worked best when there is a targeted “anti-people”—an enemy determined to thwart the popular will. This might be the statue-­topplers who are tearing up “our” heritage, or the Black Lives Matter protesters who suggest Britain has a wretched past. Or it could be the judges blocking the people’s desires over Brexit. 

When he took over from Theresa May in the summer of 2019 Johnson provided a ­particular service for the ruling class. Johnson was able to keep together groups of people based around an ideology of populist nationalism. 

His tactics included posing as an anti-elite figure, which sometimes clashed with the interests of other Tories. As foreign secretary, asked about corporate concerns over Brexit, Johnson replied, “Fuck business”. 

It was part of developing himself as a figure who could subordinate his true elite characteristics beneath a persona that was designed for broad appeal. Johnson has never had the clear class-based programme that someone like Margaret Thatcher offered to the ruling class in the 1970s. 

She put forward a decisive set of ideas around breaking trade union power, forcing down wages and restoring profit rates. Johnson was far more modest—his pitch was a way for the Tories to continue in government and maintain a hold on lucrative positions. 

The ruling class has always shown great flexibility. It wasn’t for nothing that the ­revolutionary Leon Trotsky spoke of “the exceedingly potent class dexterity of the world-ruling British bourgeoisie”.  In a much more amateurish way, Johnson supported any political position he could use to his advantage.

Starting his career as a ­celebrity Tory journalist, followed by Mayor of London, Johnson built a character as the blundering toff with messy hair. It meant his nasty racism, sexism and homophobia had, for some, the sting taken out of it due to his clownish ways.

But he always carried out assaults on working class people and the welfare state at the same time as trying to be a popular figurehead. And that was all developed further as prime minister. 

Johnson took to proclaiming, “We are going to get Brexit done.” Posing as the enemy of corporate interests split the Tory party. But ultimately it was central to Johnson winning an 80-seat majority in the general election of 2019. The majority of bosses and their Tory backers wanted to remain in the neoliberal EU’s single market to protect profits. But “get Brexit done” remained Johnson’s rallying cry.

He said Britain would leave on 31 October 2019 “do or die” and “no ifs or buts”—which soon turned out to be more lies. He shared this with Donald Trump—appearing anti-establishment and on the side of ordinary people. Johnson promised more money for police and prisons and infrastructure for “left behind towns”. 

Blocking 

Hidden behind this were the real plans to raise the ­threshold people start paying the 40 ­percent income tax rate from £50,000 a year to £80,000. Johnson’s next move was to shut down parliament to stop legislation blocking his no-deal Brexit plans. This caused ­outrage, yet for supporters, he was trying to win and was bravely battling the elite.

When the bill to extend the Brexit deadline to 31 January 2020 was passed, followed by more resignations, Johnson marched towards a general election. The next blow was the Supreme Court decision that his suspension of parliament was “unlawful, void and of no effect”. He played the only card he had—pose as the defender of democracy against elite judges, MPs and the media who ignore 17.4 million Leave voters.

This helped win him the 2019 election. Johnson genuinely fell out with other sections of the ruling elite. But he was no ­anti-capitalist—he did what was necessary to overcome opposition forces and win. To sell his policies, Johnson fell back on the Tory strategy of attacking “enemies” of the state.

Populists reach out to ordinary people who feel abandoned and ignored. They take policies that benefit the ruling class and paint them with a cross-class shine. Rulers conceal their class prejudice and bigotry by relying on love for Queen and country.

Nationalism is built into ruling class ideology. That’s why so-called threats to the nation’s stability—migrants, foreign interference and the left—have to be crushed.This cuts across class, makes scapegoats much easier to identify and is normalised through racism and so-called culture wars. Johnson has pulled the Tory party further rightwards over racism and migration to keep them in power.

The fallout over Brexit isolated Britain from EU foreign policy, so Johnson is tied to US imperialism more than ever. That drives developments such as the Aukus submarine deal and support for the US over Ukraine.  This is his vision of a “global Britain”.

With this goes the fake image of a strong Britain standing on its own two feet. Nationalism is pumped up hard to compensate for the ­reality of an elite programme. 

This has worked in the past for Johnson. But he can no longer rely on nationalism and bland statements about the sunlit uplands to come in order to convince people he is on their side.

Implored 

Johnson rallied people around him during the pandemic by seemingly standing in the shadow of Winston Churchill, declaring war on coronavirus. Despite being responsible for mismanaging the pandemic, test and trace failures, tens of thousands of deaths and three lockdowns gone wrong, he portrayed himself as statesmanlike.

Favouring big business with dodgy contracts, and reopening schools and workplaces and schemes to facilitate profit showed his true priorities. But quite contrary to Tory instincts he was forced into a massive expansion of the role of the state to keep the system going. He implored unity in the “unprecedented” time of crisis. 

Johnson survived conceding over schools opening and free school meals, and he held on despite declaring “let the bodies pile high in their thousands”. The pandemic showed that forests of magic money trees do exist when the system needs them. 

But now it is working class people who are told to pay the bills. As life has become tougher, questions over the funding of Johnson’s lavish Downing Street flat, donations for holidays and lockdown parties surfaced. Despite the corruption Johnson was still able to paint himself as the bringer of joy when he ended lockdowns. 

But the accelerating sense that he supported “one rule for them and another for the rest of us” has corroded his appeal. He is at his weakest ever because he cannot rely on his usual tactics or posho mumblings to back out of the Partygate and rising living cost crises. 

He can try to use scapegoats to worm his way out, but it’s clearer than ever whose side he is on. For a while he kept backbenchers on side by ­throwing away remaining ­pandemic restrictions. Now Johnson’s anti-establishment pose is collapsing.

The Tories increasingly sense he is an electoral turn-off rather than an asset. He faces sharp class questions—the anger at one rule for them and another for us, the shattering assault on living standards and hiked costs of living.

But Johnson’s hopes of survial are assisted by an opposition Labour Party that, instead of exposing class interests, has offered its own version of patriotism, “national interest” and cross-class unity. Even then, Johnson’s ­well-versed strategies may not be enough to claw him out the crisis that is built into the wider system he represents.

It makes him dangerous in a new way, ready to lash out and scapegoat in order to find new sources of popularity. The longer there is a lack of resistance from below, the longer he can attempt to ride this wave of anger, rally his forces and steady his reign again.

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