With his blond hair, rapid ascension through the ranks thanks to political polarisation, and a capacity to ignore cumbersome objective facts, Boris Johnson, known as Boris or BoJo, has often been compared with Donald Trump, of whom he was, until October 2020, a fervent supporter. But do these similarities suffice to make Johnson a populist leader? Is he at the head of a populist movement? Is British democracy under threat?
Populism is defined by the opposition between the people and the elite. A populist leader, regardless of their social origins, must be able to present themself as ‘the’ man of the people, in whom ordinary voters can recognise themselves and project their views. There is nothing new about this trait that most leaders actually strive to promote in a democracy.
BoJo fits this profile perfectly. He has long cultivated the style of the ordinary man, expressing himself simply, directly and with humour. He is somewhat neglectful of his appearance, often to the point of scruffiness, and he accepts his portliness without complex. He attracts media attention by setting himself up in tailor-made “photo opp” situations with ridiculous outfits or attitudes. He dresses up to embody the workers he meets. Yet he actually comes from the internationalised European elite (after working for a while at the World Bank, his father became a high-ranking European civil servant). Through his education (at an international school in Brussels, then Eton and Oxford), he embodies the British elite to perfection. During his early career as a journalist, he gained a reputation for his one-liners and a capacity to transform information into catchy anecdotes, even if this meant a slight re-arrangement of the facts. His jokes aimed at the European Union hit their mark and probably contributed to the spread of Euroscepticism. He is also known to have lied to his employers (resulting in two dismissals for inventing quotes and denying having an “affair”) as well as to the public.
Over the years, he has perfected his character, participating in TV shows, both humoristic or about history, even publishing a biography of Churchill in 2014. He thus acquired the notoriety that served to get himself elected, first as a member of parliament from 2001 to 2008, then again in 2015, and notably as Mayor of London (2008-2016). His escapades and a dubious political track record in the capital city failed to diminish his popularity. After much hesitation, he finally spoke out in favour of Brexit. He was probably Brexit’s best advocate, stirring up the crowds with his harangues against the elites, assurances that the National Health Service would receive more money once the country had left the EU, and a promise to take back control over Britain’s destiny. Inspired by Donald Trump’s election slogan, which he was often heard to praise, his 2019 campaign promised to “make Britain great again!”. BoJo has built a familiar character, set apart from the traditional elites, and has brought the media into line to serve his childish ambition to “be king of the world”.
Populist leaders are next to nothing without the movements that support them. But what of Johnson? The Conservative Party, which has largely dominated the British parliament since the 19th century, is known more for elitism than for populism, even though it has strayed into populism on occasions in the past for electoral purposes. Examples that come to mind include Margaret Thatcher posing as a reasonable housewife, the “common sense” promoted by John Major, Theresa May’s more recent attacks on members of parliament in 2019, and election campaigns based on symbols that, while controversial, were difficult to censure (“dog whistle politics”).
Johnson’s arrival at the head of the party therefore demands some explanation. Indeed, one notes that the conservative teams surrounding him comprise the people who fought and won the 2016 referendum. During the 2019 election campaign, they chose to target former labour bastions that voted for Brexit and promised to reduce regional inequalities.
To understand the populist tendencies of the teams that, along with BoJo, took over the Conservative Party in July 2019 and then the government, we must go back to the Brexit referendum campaign three years previously. At that time, two distinct, autonomous groups were campaigning to leave the European Union. Pro-sovereignty Nigel Farage, member of the European Parliament and a known populist, was the leader of one radical group, focussed on immigration and border control. He was supported by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which had been putting increasing electoral and ideological pressure on the Conservative Party since the end of the 1990s. Farage became the leader of UKIP in 2006. Cameron’s promise to organise a referendum if he was elected in 2015 was actually an attempt to dispel this threat. He upheld his promise in 2016 but fell into the trap of over-confidence. For instance, he allowed the members of his Cabinet to choose on which side they would campaign.
A second group formed from a coalition of anti-Europeans, mostly from the Conservative Party. Johnson announced himself in favour of Brexit in February 2016, much to everyone’s surprise. Rumour has it that he was laying down the foundations for replacing Cameron, without actually anticipating or wanting the Brexit campaign to win. BoJo applied his talents as an orator to his newly discovered cause. As a leading actor on the political stage, he was familiar with its codes and resources, and shared with pro-Brexiters a belief in the principle of winning at all costs. This was considered to be the first campaign of the “post-truth” era in which facts are unimportant and divisive arguments are used to trigger emotions and mobilise voters.
The European issue has been dividing Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher’s speech in Bruges in 1988, followed by the 1992 Maastricht treaty. The existence of an anti European Union movement has been eating away at the party’s electoral base. Having failed to win a majority in the House of Commons (since 1997), successive Conservative leaders have appeared to suffer from a structural weakness. Several of them have tried to instrumentalise eurosceptical sentiments : in 2001, William Hague campaigned to “save the pound”; his successor, Iain Duncan Smith, was one of the first Eurosceptics; under Cameron’s leadership, the Conservative members of the European Parliament left the European People’s Party to join a right-wing Eurosceptic group. Johnson’s recent success is related to the mobilisation of these anti-European movements, initially on the fringes of the party with UKIP, then among the Europhobes within the party itself. However, the day after the referendum, the disconcerted winners rejected Johnson’s leadership.
To prevent the anti-European radicals from coming into power in 2016, the Conservative elites chose Theresa May, the only official candidate for the position of Prime Minister, thus avoiding the members’ vote, which would probably have brought victory for BoJo. Among the pro-Brexit Conservatives, he was the best-known, most charismatic figure. To limit his capacity for harm, May named him Foreign Minister, but he resigned in summer 2018 to become the informal leader of the most hardline Brexiters, although he did not actually join their group.
Johnson’s success is also partly explained by his popularity within the Conservative Party. Surveys reveal that the party’s members, whose numbers are in strong decline, are gradually becoming more radical. These members, traditionally older and attached to the collective imagination of the British Empire and memories of the Second World War, position themselves further to the right than their MPs. Pro-Brexit and against compromise during the negotiations, they refused freedom of movement and demanded to leave the single market. Populist themes (English nationalism, sovereignty, xenophobia, economic and social resentment, rejection of intellectuals and expertise) were instrumentalised by pro-Brexit Conservatives in general. This strategy must be considered in the context of the austerity policies implemented by Cameron’s governments, which were largely responsible for the turmoil that accelerated the political rejection by the impoverished classes who felt abandoned. For the Conservative Party, obsessed with regaining power, populist arguments were acceptable if effective and a good leader is always the one who carries the promise of electoral wins.
New Labour’s reforms, followed by the global economic crisis, and the austerity policies implemented by David Cameron’s governments further enhanced inequalities, triggered social tension, and created a trend in public opinion that has encouraged the spread of populist theories, resulting in growing repudiation of the parliamentary parties over the years. The 2016 referendum was just one more symptom: the debate widened the deep political divisions that were spreading through families everywhere, and even among the parliamentary groups historically known for their discipline. Theresa May dissolved the House of Commons in spring 2017, expecting a more solid majority than the one she inherited. However, she was mistaken. Under pressure from Brexiters, including BoJo, she headed chaotic negotiations with Europe, finding herself unable to establish a consensus on the objectives and terms of the separation. The two dominant parties at Westminster were divided, at the mercy of dissidents, factions and even small parties (such as the DUP). The chaos ultimately pushed Theresa May to resign in June 2019, but the hiatus continued even after BoJo stepped in.
It might seem that the melodrama of each debate and every vote at Westminster reflects the vitality of the political debate, but public opinion is also divided and increasingly resentful of its political class. BoJo thus came up with the idea – or listened to the idea proposed by his advisor Dominic Cummings – of suspending parliamentary procedures and expelling the more moderate MPs from the party. He hoped that this would enable him to impose his views on the party, on parliament and on Brexit. The strategy failed, however, and the courts stepped in to cancel what the opposition was describing as an institutional coup. However, by playing on the confusion of the Labour party, an equally divided party led by Jeremy Corbyn, with hints of populism, BoJo managed to impose the organisation of early elections. This master stroke ensured him a large majority with a Conservative Party purged of its moderate members. The young elected MPs, who owe him a great deal, won in constituencies that were pro-Brexit, long-standing Labour seats, before becoming abstentionist. Having protected himself against internal dissent and compromise, he filled his Cabinet with very loyal newcomers of debatable ability. There was nothing left to stop him from reigning supreme.
Could BoJo use the institutions, once criticised as being a “dictatorship of the ballot box” (because of the winner-takes-all voting system and parliamentary bipartisanship), to transform the regime? The worst may never happen. Now, as the UK regains its “independence”, the programme appears rather vague, and economically liberal rather than socially progressive. Can BoJo last? The position of Conservative leaders is actually less solid that it might appear, being linked to three different powers: the electorate, the Conservative Party members, and the Conservative and economic elites, which have already pushed a good number of his predecessors towards the door. The health crisis is a good means of distracting attention from the consequences of Brexit, notably the economic fallout, and after the fiasco of the first year of the pandemic, BoJo is now riding on the success of his vaccination strategy.
However, there is nothing new or radical about his programme, and the Westminster system, focussed on greater London and south-eastern England, has been well under the control of the Conservative Party for generations. By contrast, Boris Johnson, the only political leader with a certain charisma, is also the only one who might be able to lead the Conservative Party to future election wins, by mobilising disenchanted citizens who supported Brexit. Strangely, the disunion of the United Kingdom (threatened by the Scottish independence movement and the complicated status of Northern Ireland), if it comes about, could strengthen Conservative domination. However, he must get through the pandemic first, and hope that the economic consequences of leaving the European Union, notably the deterioration of trade terms, are attributed to someone other than the PM who “delivered Brexit”.
Florence Faucher is Professor of political science at Sciences Po, Centre d’études européennes et de politique comparée (CEE). Her research focuses on how forms of political participation and activism have changed over the last thirty years.