Boris Johnson could strike a chord with key sections of the electorate in the short-term before major damage is done. They will live to regret it, writes Andrew Hammond
Since Boris Johnson entered 10 Downing Street last month, numerous historical parallels have been made for his political leadership with conservative figures from Ronald Reagan, to Winston Churchill, and indeed a more contemporary one in Donald Trump. Yet, the closest analogy may be with George W Bush given the significant similarities between his and Johnson’s political playbooks.
Not only did both win power with a precarious electoral mandate that they took as cover for radical right-wing action, despite pledges to govern from the political centre-ground. In addition, Johnson now looks likely to copy from Bush a relentlessly focused campaign to renew power based on appeals to patriotism at a time of major national challenge.
Like Johnson, Bush was elected to power with a contested electoral mandate. While the new UK prime minister won a majority of the approximately 160,000 Conservative Party members — around 0.2% of the UK electorate — the then-US president in 2000 became the first person to win the electoral college, but lose the popular vote since 1888, a feat repeated by Trump in 2016.
Bush’s election mandate was further tarnished by the fact that it was ultimately sealed by the US Supreme Court after a heavily contested result in Florida. To some significant controversy, Conservative justices on the Supreme Court overturned a decision of the Florida Supreme Court on its interpretation of Florida law, overriding their normal deference to state courts, and sealing for Bush an official margin of victory in that state of just 537 votes out of 6 million cast, with further vote recounting stopped in its tracks.
Yet, despite this slender, contested margin of victory, Bush and hardline conservatives in his team, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, made few compromises in what was a subsequent, disciplined assumption of power.
And rather than governing from the centre as a “compassionate conservative”, the then-president proceeded with a radical package of measures, including one of the largest ever ($1.35 trillion ) US tax cuts which disproportionately favoured high income households; opposition to the Kyoto Protocol (the predecessor of the Paris Climate Change Treaty); plus the excesses of the ‘war on terror’.
Evidence so far indicates that Johnson, who like Bush shares a patrician ‘born to rule’ mindset, is consolidating power in a similar, nakedly partisan way. While making allusions to liberal, ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, Johnson has created a government of Brexit, for Brexit, by Brexit with the number of MPs in his cabinet who voted leave in 2016 doubling compared to the predecessor one under Theresa May’s leadership.
And already, in the face of public and parliamentary sentiment to the contrary, a central goal of Johnson’s administration appears to be moving towards the much stronger prospect of a no-deal Brexit, the hardest and most disorderly outcome of the UK’s potential exit from the EU.
Here, he has already set the nation on a collision course with the EU27 by making the scrapping of the so-called Irish backstop a precondition for further negotiations, let alone a revised compromise deal.
Yet, he knows full well that Brussels cannot compromise here unless an alternative solution to the Irish border situation is found. This is not a tactical play, but a strategic necessity for European leaders as it risks undercutting either the integrity of the Single Market or the Good Friday Agreement.
Foolish as Johnson’s course of action is, he risks being potentially underestimated by opponents, just as Bush was by some Democrats in 2001. To be sure, Bush ultimately turned out to be, by the end of his second term, the least popular president since Gallup began its polling 70 years beforehand.
But he nonetheless proved successful beforehand in pushing through a wide swathe of conservative measures. And indeed in being re-elected in 2004 on a pro-war, perceived patriotic platform becoming the first Republican to do so alongside majorities for his party in both Houses of Congress since Herbert Hoover in 1928.
Just as Bush sought to whip up national unity around his re-election campaign, in the aftermath of the tragic September 2001 terrorist atrocities, Johnson appears to be playing a similar card as he moves towards his hard Brexit utopia in which he seeks to persuade that a no-deal exit is the ultimate patriotic act.
Nonsense as this is, with the economic and political harm it could do the nation, the danger for progressive forces is that it could strike a chord with key sections of the electorate in the short-term before major damage is done.
This is why, with a potential car-crash looming, the new prime minister is already in campaign mode planning for a snap general election this autumn or spring. His agenda will be deeply damaging for the nation, and the key question is whether the UK electorate will be wise to this before the next national ballot, or as with the US electorate and Bush, live to regret the consequences in the years that follow.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics