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The Boris Bonanza

Michael Tubi / Shutterstock.com

The British Prime Minister’s electoral success is another striking instance of a leader on the centre-right winning by surfing the populist wave and responding to the demands of anti-globalist voters who value the nation state. Delivering won’t be easy though.

One of the iron laws of British politics is that the Tory party finds a way. Time and again throughout its existence it has survived defeat, reinvented itself and regained power when the odds suggested it was doomed. But even by the standards of a history that takes in the escapologist antics of Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill, the recent successful reinvention under Boris Johnson must count as one of the more remarkable great electoral escapes in the fabled story of the world’s oldest political party.

Just a year ago, the Tories looked ruined and destined to be the losers as Theresa May’s government struggled to implement Brexit. May had made the most terrible mess of handling the negotiations with the European Union - overplaying her hand one moment before folding the following week. The British team was thoroughly outplayed by Brussels, and Westminster became locked in a cycle of despair.

“Theresa really landed us in it,” says a former cabinet minister. “Not having voted for Brexit in the first place she then felt she had to out do the Brexiteers in her rhetoric to prove that a Remainer could be trusted to deliver Brexit. She talked too tough. There was no proper, public reckoning with the trade offs and hard choices required to deliver it. Once she lost her parliamentary majority she was a prisoner of a Remain parliament. She couldn’t please anyone. It was hopeless and horrible to watch.”

During this prolonged farce, from 2017 to mid-2019, the default national mood in the UK was long spells of depression, punctuated by increasingly fractious outbursts of fighting and hysteria on the part of the combatants on both sides of a bitter divide.

I recall an encounter with Boris a year or so ago at Westminster. A bunch of us, MPs and journalists, were discussing the latest phase of the May farce. Boris came over to say hello, looking like a man whose time had been and gone. It was awkward. Politics is cruel. The former Foreign Secretary, newspaper columnist and Churchill biographer seemed unlikely ever to make it to Number 10.

The fashionable view a year ago was that the very best the Tories could hope for was May’s deal limping over the line in a parliamentary vote, with further concessions made to the EU and those in Britain trying to neuter Brexit. Having done that, it was widely expected that May would probably carry on for a while and then, when it came to time for the Tories to choose a new leader, the party would probably skip a generation and try to identify someone younger from its cadre of MPs who represented a break with the past. All in the desperate hope that it might woo back voters, and Leave voters in particular, who were in a state uproar over the lack of leadership from the Tories.

Last year, the forces of Remain, those who refused to accept the democratic result, spotted an opportunity and rallied to push for a rerun of the referendum.

Against that backdrop, and with the Tories starting to tank in the opinion polls, Nigel Farage intervened in early 2019. To the horror of the Tory leadership the former leader launched the Brexit Party. In his populist style, Farage began verbally assaulting the Tories for betraying Leave voters, who were looking for an outlet to kick the Tories.

May provided it when Britain participated in the elections held for the European Parliament in May.

The result was slaughter for the Conservatives. Humiliatingly, they scored just nine per cent - nine per cent! - in vote share in the European elections.

Yet a mere six months after this debacle the Conservatives under new leader Boris Johnson won a Commons majority of 80, smashing the Remainers and thrashing the Labour Party, led by the far left Jeremy Corbyn.

How on earth did they do it?

The Conservative party was aided by the peculiar workings of the British electoral system, of course. The first-past-the-post system means that a party wins clearly if it can score above 40 per cent of the national vote, and sometimes less, and it is distributed geographically in an advantageous fashion. If the Tory tribe stays broadly unified, runs a strong campaign, keeps up its vote and the opposition parties split the vote on the other side, then the effects of FPTP are amplified. This played a part in the victories of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and it happened again last December.

The quirks of the voting system alone cannot deliver victory for the Tories. Most of all the Tories owe Boris Johnson himself. The victory at the tail end of 2019 was his victory and a startling vindication of his claim that what was needed was a more robust, optimistic attitude to, in his phrase, getting Brexit done and moving the country on. His chief advisor Dominic Cummings - the ragged trousered strategist - played a critical role in the late summer and autumn by encouraging Johnson to be as provocative as possible to a Remain-dominated parliament, so that eventually they gave him the early election he needed. Johnson’s opponents fell for it and were defeated heavily.

In the end, the hubristic hype in the anti-Brexit sections of the British media about a liberal realignment based on breakaway groupings in parliament, or tactical voting against the Tories, came to nothing. Liberal fantasy collided on election day with the brute reality that millions of voters had had enough of the preening and posturing by those unwilling to respect the result of the 2016 referendum.

Those pro-Brexit voters were, and are, far from being starry-eyed about Boris Johnson, a candidate whose shortcomings were mentioned endlessly by his critics. But in Johnson’s pitch for power they found the perfect weapon with which to punish an elite that had treated them with contempt.

In the North of England there was another dimension. Many patriotic working class voters voted Tory because they were appalled by the Labour party running Jeremy Corbyn, a far left leader who does not like his country, as its candidate for Number 10.

The extent of the Boris comeback is all the more remarkable because early in 2019 Johnson had looked done for, like yesterday’s man.

I recall an encounter with Boris a year or so ago at Westminster. A bunch of us, MPs and journalists, were discussing the latest phase of the May farce. Boris came over to say hello, looking like a man whose time had been and gone. It was awkward. Politics is cruel. The former Foreign Secretary, newspaper columnist and Churchill biographer seemed unlikely ever to make it to Number 10.

In the face of constant criticism it took an extraordinary act of will, of self-belief and ambition, to prove the doomsayers wrong, to stick with it and emerge as a Prime Minister with the first solid Conservative majority since Thatcher won a landslide in 1987.

Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com
Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com

It helped in the opening months of his premiership that he looked so damned cheerful. After the misery of the May era, there was a hunger for a little optimism and feel-good theatrics. Britain under May had become a supplicant, a defeated power tied to the whipping post. Boris promised to have a go at wrestling the British free. Millions of voters found it cheering. Optimism can be infectious.

Unlike more obvious and traditionalist populists, Johnson is not interested in claims that his country - or the West more widely - is doomed or “going to hell in a handcart.” In terms of his sunny disposition, Johnson has more in common with Ronald Reagan than with Donald Trump.

Whereas Johnson sends out a series of merry messages on social media, sometimes featuring his dog, the President is a moody figure who delights in taunting his enemies on Twitter.

What both these leaders do share - as well as similar blond haystack hairstyles - is a gut understanding that in neglected parts of their respective countries there was a simmering fury at being lectured, overlooked and patronised by a sanctimonious middle class professional cadre that is dominant in the media, public service leadership, law, big business and the culture industry.

There is an irony in Johnson’s case. Whereas Trump is from the isolationist, protectionist America first tradition, Boris’s instincts are those of a liberal conservative. His attitudes on migration and trade are not remotely protectionist.

What does help connect Johnson with those aggrieved voters is his reputation as a disruptive, at times anarchic, figure who refuses to play the game of a mainstream media that is as distrusted as the political class.

For more than a decade parts of the press in Britain and the US have been playing a game of gotcha, applying a politically correct set of standards that inhibit open discussion. Johnson when confronted with such criticism - a liberal Twitter storm over one of his newspaper columns for example - ignores it, smiles and carries on. He may not use an aggressive Twitter persona in the manner of Trump, but the subliminal message to those voters from Boris is received loud and clear beyond the metropolitan areas: I’m with you; I’ll say what I like, thank you very much; they think they’re better than you, they’re not; together we’re going to show them that we will not play their game any more.

In their different ways, Trump and Boris won power by confronting the arrogance of sanctimonious liberal elites.

Contrast this with what has happened in Germany, where a long-serving Chancellor Merkel is preparing to leave office with barely an achievement to her name and German conservatism in a miserable state. On her watch the far-right has grown. Last November, Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 23.5% of the vote in local elections, Thuringia up from 10.6% in 2014, and ahead of Merkel’s party.

In France, President Macron’s attempts at reform have been bedevilled from the start by his arrogant, hectoring top down approach to those below elite level.

Trump and Johnson are far better placed than either Merkel or Macron because they are swimming with the tide of opinion in the West. They emphasise the nation and direct their message at voters outside the entitled circle of liberal left opinion. It works.

It might not have have turned out like this. During the aftershocks of the financial meltdown of 2008 it seemed at one point as though it would push politics in the democratic West leftwards. Wouldn’t voters demand punishment for the capitalists who were blamed for the calamity and seek new leadership from the left?

Something more interesting happened. The 2008 meltdown was followed by the crisis in the Eurozone and Europe’s sudden migration surge. These represented an unravelling of liberal elite projects - of global finance, a transnational currency and open borders - and voters were hungry for a message that was more local, familial and national. The mantra of globalised finance has been globalisation, the abolition or blurring of borders, with economics and finance deemed to be taking place at a remote level above the old-fashioned and supposedly discredited nation state.

If there is a crisis I suspect that Johnson and Trump’s response will be thoroughly Keynesian, based on boosterism and the West borrowing its way out of trouble. In Britain this will alienate the free-marketeers in the Tory party who backed him for the leadership on the mistaken assumption that in economic terms he is a Thatcherite.

Only, it didn’t work that way when it went wrong. When the bill landed for the rescue after the financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, it was not handled at a level above the individual nation state. The bill landed on the the doormat of national taxpayers and was paid in the form of higher taxes, lower growth, and massive extra borrowing, which is just deferred taxation.

The rumbling and routing of the globalised elite was epitomised most obviously by what happened in the US. Clintonian arrogance and entitlement made possible the rise of Donald Trump, a Republican insurgent who mined a deep well of American scepticism about internationalism. Trump promised to put America first.

In Britain the backlash created the rebellious conditions for Brexit in 2016 and then for Boris in 2019. In parts of Eastern Europe the electorate had tilted in such a direction even earlier. Law and Justice won the 2015 election in Poland.

Even though these developments are heterogeneous, each with their own national characteristics, there is a common thread. A rejection of the liberal-left orthodoxy that elevated transnational institutions above the nation state and, too often, confused patriotism with nationalism and a pride in country with racism.

Ed Balls, the former Shadow Chancellor for Labour in Britain, now out of politics and making documentaries for the BBC, is one of the few figures on the left who has at least begun to process intelligently what has happened.

Balls said recently: “We are seeing the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, but many of the people who vote for these parties aren’t racists or extremists… Voters are making choices in elections that they don’t necessarily want to make, because they feel they are not being listened to or they are being dismissed. You can’t do that to large portions of a country.”

Winning by addressing the concerns of those voters is one thing. Delivering in office is another. And in that way a lot could go wrong with the Boris project.

Gil Corzo / Shutterstock.com
Gil Corzo / Shutterstock.com

Not only will the Brexit process take up considerable bandwidth. It will be tough to deliver on the promises he made to the North of England, to level up the economy and improve skills and education to power up Britain’s lagging productivity. Announcing shiny, vast new infrastructure schemes is easy. Putting in place the reforms to schooling and training that raises opportunity in the “left behind” parts of Britain involves painstaking work taking many years.

All this will have to be done against a global economic backdrop that is long overdue a shock or a downturn of some sort. In seeking to prop up growth, central banks have resorted to money-printing, or QE. What started as a temporary measure has become a permanent fixture. No major central bank seems to know how to stop or unwind it.

Serious risks have also been taken in the banking system, particularly in the US. A key part of the system - the repo market where banks exchange high quality securities for cash, to keep the money flowing - is so rickety and over-used that the US authorities have had to deploy more than $500 billion of assistance since September 2019 keeping the repo market alive.

At any point, one trigger or another - government indebtedness for example, or corporate reliance on cheap money, or a further slowdown in China hitting a Germany reliant on exports - could trigger the next crisis.

If there is a crisis I suspect that Johnson and Trump’s response will be thoroughly Keynesian, based on boosterism and the West borrowing its way out of trouble. In Britain this will alienate the free-marketeers in the Tory party who backed him for the leadership on the mistaken assumption that in economic terms he is a Thatcherite. Boris is a Borisite, and very unlikely to return to the policy of austerity pursued by his predecessors David Cameron and George Cameron. It will be spend, spend, spend.

All that and more complication lies ahead. Nonetheless, it does not - yet - detract from the scale of Boris’s achievement in securing such a thumping victory. In doing so he showed that listening to the concerns of voters and being optimistic about the nation state’s future is a winning combination. ¬