Britain gets its Trump
The comforting truth is that nobody – outside of the Tory Party – seriously voted to make Johnson the Prime Minister. It is also for this reason that the legitimacy of Johnson’s leadership has to be, if UK politics is to be considered democratic, decried and challenged from the offset..
Donald Trump’s visit to the UK ended some weeks ago however, his presence still lingers, as Boris Johnson prepares to become the leader of the Tory Party and take over the country. With a string of children from different relationships, multiple accusations of scandal, and racist slurs against Muslim women in the niqab as ‘letterboxes’ and black people as having ‘watermelon smiles’, Johnson shares Trump’s commitment to bringing sexism and racism into the heart of UK politics with the support of a nativist voter base that prove happy to treat such offense as if it was in fact only harmless.
The phrasing of Johnson as ‘leader of the Tory Party’ – thus avoiding the words Prime Minister – is not accidental. Johnson will be the second Tory MP to have found themselves as Prime Minister not as a result of winning a general election, but as a result only of the aging, very white, and very male internal membership of his party voting for who they’d like to lead them. Over half of the approximately 160,000 members are over the age of 56.
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 23: Demonstrators protest outside the home of Boris Johnson's girlfriend Carrie Symonds on June 23, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. Police were called to the London home of Boris Johnson and his partner in the early hours of Friday after neighbours reportedly heard a loud argument. (Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images)
Being this precise with my terminology isn’t something I’d do lightly. Democracy as it is currently understood works because we accept the results that we do not like, just as the principle of taxation requires us to believe in public contributions even where the government of the day does not share our spending priorities. Democracy sometimes necessitates the acceptance of a loss, but democracy also necessitates legitimacy, and certain standards have to be upheld in order to ensure that legitimacy is preserved.
Theresa May was parachuted into the office of Prime Minister by a party who needed to replace David Cameron after his resignation at the shock of the UK vote to leave the European Union. As with Johnson, Tory members alone voted for her appointment, but just one year after a narrow general election win in 2015, there were grounds to reason the country did – at the time of Cameron’s resignation – at the time narrowly want a Conservative Government. In 2017, Theresa May called a general election and in it lost the small Conservative majority, requiring her to buy the support of votes from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, in return for £1bn of government spending in their region. Since that time, with negotiations to leave the EU constantly floundering, Theresa May has incurred three successive and record-breaking parliamentary defeats in votes on her Withdrawal Agreement. The Tory Party arguably needs a new leader to replace the outgoing May and take on a technocratic role, stewarding the country towards a general election, but it is hard to make a democratic case for much more than that.
Boris Johnson, former U.K. foreign secretary and U.K. Conservative party leadership candidate, raises his fist as he speaks during a hustings event in Birmingham, U.K., on Saturday, June 22, 2019. Johnson pitched his bid for U.K. prime minister to Conservative Party members and drew cheers when he dodged questions about a spat with his partner that brought the police to his London home. Photographer: Darren Staples/Bloomberg via Getty Images
After months in which the Conservatives have been hammered in local elections, European elections, parliamentary votes, and opinion polls, it is unsurprising that the obedient bulk of that party do not wish for a general election anytime soon, but what remains to be seen is how far into disrepute they are willing to drag the country to avoid one. The incoming Tory leader has been assured they will receive no new exit deal from the European Union; the parliamentary arithmetic leaves the very same voting deadlock that floored May. The UK needs not just a new Prime Minister in name only, but a new national vote that can reassert priorities for organising the new UK-EU relationship.
The Labour position is to extend the withdrawal period to allow for a general election, secure a deal with a permanent customs union (the Conservative preference is a temporary one), and – crucially – give the UK a confirmatory referendum on the final deal. The platform from which Boris Johnson plans to lead the country promises to renegotiate a deal the EU has said cannot be renegotiated, threatens to walk away from UK commitments to outstanding debts if no such deal is forthcoming, and take the country out of the EU without a deal if necessary. The UK, simply, stands on the edge of still greater declines in its international standing and reputation, all of it accelerated by Johnson, a boy who – in the corridors of Oxford University and Eton – was raised so steeped in the delusions of British Empire that he expects the country to be able to get away internationally with the same failure and untrustworthiness that has somehow done nothing to harm his political career domestically.
Boris Johnson, a Member of Parliament of the United Kingdom, and a former Mayor of London and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, speaks at Pendulum Summit, World's Leading Business & Self Empowerment Summit, in Dublin Convention Center. On Thursday, January 10, 2019, in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
It is here in particular that Trump and Johnson have most in common, however, because their willingness to say the insulting, inaccurate, and the rightly unsayable – about refugees, immigration, Islam, colonial legacies – has endeared them to a privileged section of their electorates who have grown willing to mistake offense for honesty. It is in this eerie version of politics that scandal seems to stick to neither man and even functions to their advantage – gaining them limelight and somehow bolstering a false sense of authenticity. It is clear that neither men, both enormously wealthy by birth, have no such commitment to upending the apple cart or speaking hard truths concerning dangerous levels of wealth inequality, or the inability of gatekeepers to impede even the most incompetent person of wealth obtaining a position of absolute power in either the US or the UK.
While this is provoking similar dismay in the UK as it has in the US, there is at least the comforting truth that nobody – outside of the Tory Party – seriously voted to make Johnson the Prime Minister. It is also for this reason that the legitimacy of Johnson’s leadership has to be if UK politics is to be considered democratic, decried and challenged from the offset.
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 12: Conservative MP Boris Johnson leaves parliament on December 12, 2018 in London, England. Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, has received the necessary 48 letters (15% of the parliamentary party) from Conservative MP's that will trigger a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Theresa May. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Beyond that, and although there already is much joking and cynicism to be had about how our politics got here, the most urgent need is for frank assessment stripped of either humour or acceptance. As Johnson’s supporters in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, the latter of which pays Johnson £275,000 a year for a weekly column, devote front page after front page in support of his leadership credentials, it is clear that the corruption of the Conservative Party and so wider UK politics did not happen overnight. Anger is now rising fast, but the cause for it has been longstanding. We must hope that its delayed arrival is not in fact too late and that, in cultures that love to blame the vulnerable, we might finally identify the true culprits.