Boris Johnson’s reign of trashing Britain’s democratic institutions may have come to an end, but the conditions that enabled him remain, writes Aeron Davis
It’s farewell to Johnson but not farewell to the continuing dangerous chaos that has characterized British politics since the Brexit vote in July 2016.
At the time of writing, Boris Johnson is eking out the last dregs of his premiership. The long, slow car crash that marked the past few months of his premiership is finally over (well, almost).
The protracted endgame began with Partygate and moved through a series of mishandled political scandals, coverups and electoral setbacks. The last days began with the forced resignation of Chris Pincher, his Deputy Chief Whip, for drunkenly groping two men at his Gentlemen’s Club.
It transpired that Johnson had been warned about Pincher’s behavior before but had appointed him anyway (Johnson reportedly joked ‘pincher by name, pincher by nature’). He then spent days denying that prior knowledge.
It was the final straw for many in the Conservative Party. His Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, coordinated their very public resignations. Up to 40 other members of government quickly followed, a record for a UK government. Yet still he attempted to cling on until there was very little left to cling to.
For many at Westminster and across the London commentariat, so will end a sorry period in British political life. For decades no one ever believed this figure of fun would get close to being prime minister. Like Donald Trump, he successfully defined expert campaign opinion, having an uncanny knack of winning voters over through sheer force of personality.
Everyone knew about his history of lies, his various affairs, his dog whistle racism, his lazy incompetence, his callous self-interest. And yet, nothing seemed to stick.
Once in power, behind the cheeky bonhomie, he ruthlessly began dismantling the pillars of British democracy, from proposing Parliament and severely curtailing the right to protest to weakening the independence of the BBC and electoral commission. He showed the same scant regard for international law. His government was amongst the slowest to respond to the first Covid wave and Britain’s per capita death rate was one of the highest in the world. With Johnson gone, the hope is for a return to a more restrained and respectful parliamentary system, to pragmatic, sensitive politics and to stable democracy. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case. Just as Trumpism goes on without a Trump presidency in the US, so Johnsonism and the conditions that enabled Johnson still remain.
Whoever takes over from Johnson will inherit the same divisions and policy vacuum. Only now they will have a dearth of talent to choose from.
His arrival initially marked an upturn in British politics after three years of parliamentary stalemate when the country seemed to be stuck in a time loop. Johnson was seen as the only one who could unite the party and country, and push through Brexit. But Johnson’s win and two years of pandemic-induced crisis have covered over many deep-seated and long-running problems likely to resurface now.
The Conservative Party is riddled with warring factions and a lack of new policy ideas. Every leader since his electoral defeat in 1997 has found himself floating back to an increasingly outdated version of Thatcherism. They, and their allies have been united more by what they are against than what they stand for. When fighting to achieve Brexit, pointing at foreign enemies, or tilting at woke windmills, they have found common cause. But being a government in perpetual opposition is no replacement for active political and economic vision or detailed policy proposals.
Whoever takes over from Johnson will inherit the same divisions and policy vacuum. Only now they will have a dearth of talent to choose from. In order to achieve Brexit, Johnson forced out many of his most experienced colleagues and alienated many of his international allies. In cementing his political position, he repeatedly rewarded loyalty over ability, ejecting many more able Tories from the fold. Looking at all the leading candidates to succeed Johnson, it’s hard to see anyone with both long cabinet experience and an ability to pull the various facts together.
All the leading candidates are united by two things: maintaining a hard Brexit and cutting taxes. Neither of these is going to alleviate the glaring issues facing the wider population, the cost-of-living crisis, the crumbling health and other public services and growing national polarization. Thus, Johnson leaves a fragmented, distrusted party with little talent or vision, one full of ministers who were previously happy to enable Johnson’s clownocracy and his trashing of democratic institutions.
Beyond the Tory Party, in many ways, the UK is back to the political stalemate and crisis it found itself in after the Brexit vote in 2016. Its civil service and welfare state are demoralized and threadbare.
Keir Starmer’s Labor opposition appears as bereft of ideas as its Tory opposition. Like the Conservatives, they are also deeply divided and have only moved forward by ruthlessly pushing out many traditional left-wing members.
Both Labor and Conservative have become organizations of control rather than parties with clearly aligned voter constituencies and visions. Neither has answers for dealing with a broken and debt-ridden economic system or for reconnecting with the wider electorate. And neither looks likely to command a Parliamentary majority at the next election.
Many mature democracies suffered economically and politically under Covid and are feeling the effects of war in Europe and China’s shutdown. Many are now struggling with raging inflation, huge debts, a lack of trust in government and a cost-of-living crisis.
The difference for the UK is that it was harder hit by the financial crisis of 2007-08, experienced a decade of austerity economics, and is also dealing with the multiple damaging consequences of leaving the EU. It’s no surprise that the country is now experiencing the kind of widespread industrial action and unrest last encountered in the peak of the Thatcher years.
In many ways, the Brexit vote of 2016 was also a strong refutation of the British Establishment, both left and right. In 2022, that rejection looks to be going far beyond the ballot box.
History tells us that behind every large economic crisis lies the potential for right-wing, anti-democratic populists to emerge. Johnson may have gone but the potential for another Johnson to emerge in the UK very much remains (take note Aotearoa as the same economic problems and socio-political divisions are becoming ever more evident here too).