James Foley

James Foley

How Johnson Lost his Populist Appeal

Reading Time: 5 minutes

James Foley argues people are learning to revile the Prime Minister for the same reason they dislike so many figures in authority. He’s been caught practicing the things he preaches against.

Three weeks ago, I raised early glimmers of a Labour lead in the polls, breaking a pattern of consistent Conservative advantages that stretched back to January. The drip of “good news” is now a torrent, and Labour leads measure as high as 9%: not enough for a majority, but enough to rouse trampling hooves of Tory panic.

The proximate cause is successive scandals, culminating in the row over Covid restrictions last Christmas, during which Conservative aides organised a full seven in-person parties. Johnson, of course, has confounded scandalmongers before – indeed, it’s been the story of his primeministership. But Christmas-gate is structurally different, because this time he can’t turn the heat back on liberal party-poopers: after all, it was Johnson himself who pooped everyone else’s parties, as his cadres partied on regardless.

If we are witnessing the end of Johnson’s era, it is time to assess his legacy with rigour and honesty. Too often liberal Britain has been guilty of lying to itself. Liberals make two dishonest claims about Johnson’s popular appeal: either it is entirely inexplicable (“how could anyone vote for that man?”); or it is entirely diabolical, resting, perhaps, on a reservoir of race hate and “imperial nostalgia”, the latter, we are to imagine, pitched halfway between a desire to restore the ultra-cosmopolitan Empire and a contrary, xenophobic desire to restore an all-white Merrie Old England. These caricatures are doubtless appealing to the liberal self-image, which is precisely why we should treat them with a dose of scepticism.

The complicated truth is that Johnson developed the most “inclusive” cabinet of modern times: ethnic minorities at one stage made up 18% of the cabinet, as against 14% of the UK population. One, Rishi Sunak, is the popular favourite to succeed Johnson, if, as expected, he is pushed from power.

Prior to Johnson, just five ethnic minorities had ever been cabinet ministers – and just two of them under “cosmopolitan”, Europhile Labour, both in junior roles. (Blair’s favourite ethnic minority advisor, Trevor Phillips, was suspended from Labour over Islamophobia – the fact that Phillips was readmitted, and Corbyn is still denied the whip, says much about the seriousness of Labour’s “anti-racist” politics).

Few would doubt that a type of racism has shaped Johnson’s rule; but does it distinguish Johnson as a historic figure in British politics? New Labour, surely, was the most Islamophobic of all our ruling cliques (a fact that nobody, Labour or Conservative, has any incentive to highlight). And it is a quirk – to be blunt, a flaw – of contemporary “leftism” that it finds Johnson’s (hysterically unfunny) remarks about letterboxes far more offensive than Blair’s state of emergency measures aimed at Muslim civil liberties, or the invasion and occupation of sovereign Muslim-majority nations.

With Starmer now pitching himself to the right of New Labour, it would be wrong to consider that era an aberration. Corbyn was the aberration; Starmer the return to normality. If a toxic mixture of racialised assumptions and imperial nostalgia does dominate the Johnson era, it would be less a break from the era of centre-left rulers than the most obvious point of continuity.

Much less is made of Johnson’s foundations in class privilege, even though 64% of his cabinet went to a fee-paying school, compared to a UK average of 7%. Once again, political convenience on all sides keeps this off the agenda. Johnson revels in his status as an anti-establishment outsider, the foundation of his “Red Wall” successes. But the last thing Labour wants to talk about is class, having squandered much of its working class base over the Starmer-led “People’s Vote” agitation. Both sides of the political divide thus find it better to stay silent, rather than become embroiled in a debate that never ends well.

Which still leaves the question: how do we explain Johnson’s popular/populist appeal? One hypothesis is that he was successful precisely for the reasons liberals hate him. This would place him with other polarising figures, like Berlusconi and Trump, who turned a reputation for being shambolic, corrupt and openly deceitful into political assets. In this sense, liberals are not lying when they say they simply cannot fathom his appeal; but this simply testifies to their complete absence of imagination or self-awareness.

In truth, many are so exasperated with politicians that they prefer a braggart to a hypocrite. And it’s understandable that what passes for “the left” in Britain has been synonymous with the latter vice. Many looked at Corbyn and saw not just a figure of the trendy London bubble, but also someone who put party unity before his own principles on Brexit (or, worse, failed to see that democracy was a question of principle). Or they look at Starmer, a gutless symptom of an amoral meritocracy. Or Jo Swinson, a tittle-tattling theatre kid thrown up in disgust by the nation’s collective unconscious. Or Caroline Lucas, who proposed resolving a split between popular and parliamentary sovereignty with an unelected matriarchy led by Change UK.

Faced with the above, Johnson’s bluntness was an asset. “Our” leaders speak in therapeutic, focus-grouped, HR-approved platitudes, signifying conformity to accepted social codes among the politics-adjacent professions. This meets with the approval of Guardian readers, who belong (as I do) to this stratum. But elsewhere, it’s met with suspicion, not because the public are idiots, but because the stratum stand accused of enforcing a neo-Victorian culture of hypocrisy: swooning at injustice while profiting from the system that sustains it.

In practice, we all know, “our” leaders will do essentially the same as Johnson, perhaps worse (consider the above, on New Labour and racism), except framed in the language of “kindness” and “compassion”. Better, sceptics might reason, to have the straight dope.

The essence of neo-Victorianism is promoting moral codes that nobody seriously expects anyone to live by, yet to act as if rhetorical adherence makes you a superior person. Such affectations are rife among political elites. Take the Scottish Parliament’s commitment to ending child poverty, with targets backed by all parties: nobody seriously expects that any Holyrood leadership, unionist or nationalist, would contemplate the social conflict necessary to meet the targets; but everyone plays along, to be seen as playing along, and perhaps to exploit the inevitable failure to their advantage.

Johnson’s vulgarity is what passes for an alternative to these grifts. He is trustworthy precisely because no serious person would ever trust him. Although he belongs among our social superiors, he doesn’t ask anyone to bow to his moral superiority, meaning he can rarely be accused of serious hypocrisy. He pokes fun at smarmy moralism and pretentious speech codes. He permits you – even encourages you – to enjoy yourself, rather than live in fear of censors from a political class who we all know, deep down, are hardly better than ourselves when you strip away their phoney rhetoric.

The clue here lies precisely in the events that might bring Johnson down. Because circumstances last Christmas made Johnson the party-pooper in chief. He was foisted into the role of nanny, issuing ordinances and cancelling the fun. But being a fusspot didn’t come easily: if not a clown, Johnson is at least the circus ringmaster, facilitating the amusements and the clowning of others. He wasn’t going to let other peoples’ gloom stand in the way of some fellows and their jolly japes. Johnson thus stands accused of the political vice against which he was the antidote: Covid made him a moralising hypocrite.

What can leftists learn from this? When a hated ruler is overthrown, the temptation is to double down on comfort zones rather than assess underlying problems. In this regard, the removal of that ultimate ogre, Donald Trump, is instructive. Like Starmer, Biden promised a rehash of nineties centrism, with a dash of infrastructure spending and some mild concessions to intersectional tropes to stave off leftist criticism.

But Biden is crashing already. If Trump stands in 2024, some polls suggest he would win handsomely, despite Capitol Hill and everything else. Worse, the Democrats have lost any type of polling lead among Hispanic voters, despite Trump’s odious “build the wall” rhetoric. The lesson is, do not revel, do not return to comfort zones – take the opportunity to learn from mistakes, because these ogres don’t come from nowhere.

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