Tomorrow Boris Johnson will become Britain’s Prime Minister. It is a moment which has loomed for years, which Brexit made all but inevitable. Yet it still feels somehow unreal, impossible. What is the reality of this decisive moment?
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is British establishment through and through. As an historian and journalist, he models himself on the populist politicians of the late Roman Republic. He is a patrician who, in his unquenchable thirst for the highest office, distracts, entertains and whips up the plebs by feigning ignorance and breaking the political rules.
Johnson made his reputation as a journalist whose distortions and mistruths shaped the British right-wing attitudes towards Europe in the 1990s. Last week he was at it again, waving around a fish that symbolised the great injustices of EU regulations. It was later pointed out that said regulation had actually been introduced, as so often, by Britain. But that doesn’t bother Johnson. The distortion is more interesting than reality, and in the age of “fake news”, the damage is done, the lie becomes the truth.
There’s a theory that Johnson never even wanted us to Brexit. He became the leading Brexiteer during the EU referendum, breaking with his school friend David Cameron, probably tipping the narrow vote in favour of leave. But his rationale, so the theory goes, was that the EU referendum would surely result in us remaining in the EU, and on the back of the Brexit-supporting Conservative Party’s anger with their leader David Cameron, the prime minister would be deposed, and Johnson would step in.
Johnson’s rule-breaking gets still darker. The bigotry he has used is now notorious (women who wear the niqab are “letter boxes”, Africans are “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, gay people are “tank-topped bumboys”). In the 1990s, he was even recorded discussing getting someone to crack the ribs of a journalist who would be investigating his activities. But Johnson laughs it off. Says he “didn’t mean it like that”. It was a joke. And he gets away with it. All the while he entertains the masses, and somehow convinces them, “I’m really just like you, always getting into trouble for offending the liberal establishment”.
This evasion means we do not know what Boris Johnson will actually do. But we have glimpses. He is seen as the great Brexiteer, which is why he has been elected by an increasingly extreme Conservative Party base. He has promised to leave the EU on October 31 come hell or high water, even if that means leaving with no deal. Even if it means taking the extraordinary step, without precedent, of suspending parliament and acting by decree.
He is desperate for a closer relationship with the US. He says he wants to meet Trump as a priority and talk trade. Only last week we got another indication of what that trade deal would mean. Leaks from the secret talks going on showed that US officials were desperate to prise Britain away from Europe and towards US-style standards and regulations. They made it pretty clear that a special tax on the BigTech companies like Amazon and Facebook, something already proceeding in France and proposed by the British government, would likely not be possible under a US trade deal. We also know there will be no US trade deal unless the UK accepts US-style food standards and the undermining of public services like the NHS.
But for the right-wing Brexiteers this is no problem – after all a trade deal on these terms would drive forward the deregulated, liberalised economy they have always wanted. As former British Chancellor Nigel Lawson said, “Brexit gives us a chance to finish the Thatcher revolution.” While Brexit creates the political and economic vacuum to push this free-market dream forward, a US trade deal can lock it in place for the foreseeable future.
Earlier this year, Johnson supported a report that could effectively spell the end of international development as we understand it. The proposals called for an end to an independent department of international development, subsuming aid spending into a mega department including international trade and the foreign office. It also proposed watering the definition of “aid” down to the point where it could be spent on … more or less anything the government feels like. More aid would flow into profit-making finance, to the ministry of defence, or to bribe countries to do trade deals with the UK. In his foreword to the proposals, Johnson said future aid should “do more to serve the political and commercial interests” of Britain.
Unlike Trump, Johnson isn’t a climate change denier, but nonetheless, the UK’s former special representative for climate change, David King, expressed alarm at a Johnson government because of his record in marginalising the issue as foreign secretary. He has pledged to cut taxes on the highest earners. And he wants to introduce the Australian points-system on migrants, ensuring Britain only creams off the most brilliant and useful migrants for big business based here.
Will any of this come to pass? It is difficult to tell because Johnson is deliberately impossible to pin down. Nothing he says can be trusted, and his lying seems pathological. But what is clear is that, like Trump, he is a politician without the normal constraints or red lines. He will do anything to hold onto power. And with Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party threatening to split the Tory vote, that means tacking hard right. Add to this Johnson’s right-wing credentials and history, and his desire to align himself with the “hard men” of the new world order, and everything is in place for Britain’s slide into the politics of authoritarian populism to continue.
What’s more Johnson’s historical beliefs can be easily adapted to the wave of authoritarian populism sweeping the planet. The rise of Trump, Bolsanaro, Duterte, Modi and their ilk is not simply about the “left behind” being whipped up by racists and populists. It is that this model of capitalism has become incompatible with the preservation of liberal democracy. The radical action needed to tackle climate change requires a fundamentally different economic model. The immense difference which new technology will make to our society (think mass automation of jobs) will likewise have a huge effect on our society and economy. We either need to move away from market mechanisms and the profit motive and share the burdens and benefits of these developments much more equally. Or we need to dispense with the idea of democracy altogether, and maintain this deeply unequal system by whipping up social division and nationalism. As a leader of an increasingly extreme political party, who has shown his ability to “think the unthinkable”, Johnson could easily swing to an increasingly populist and authoritarian position.
The largest opposition party, Labour, has struggled to undercut Johnson’s rise, with some suspicions that they actively see Johnson’s leadership as helpful in providing a candidate that they might be able to beat in an election. But this is to vastly underestimate Johnson. Only a stronger, more united movement can constrain Johnson’s worst tendencies and pull politics back from catastrophe. Too many groups – including the large NGOs and trade unions – seem content to “sit this period out” and wait for happier times. This is the path to ruin. The writing is clearly on the wall. It is time to speak out.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.