Should we worry that Britain is now led by a vengeful right-wing populist who will undermine its democracy? Several commentators have tried to reassure us. They say that with his solid parliamentary majority, the ‘real’ Boris Johnson will now emerge: a tolerant, liberal, decent leader.
But are these views dangerously naïve? The election result was a thumping personal victory for Johnson. Will it not empower him to go further in his drive for autocratic control?
After radically centralising power within his Conservative Party, he ruthlessly purged it of moderate leaders. He turned it into an extreme right-wing sect whose leaders’ owe personal fealty to him, and whose words and actions are dictated by him.
Astonishingly, eminent Conservatives including former Prime Minister John Major and former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine denounced Johnson and urged voters to support other parties at this election, but to no avail.
There are clear signs that he will now seek to impose similar one-man control over other power centres in the political system – parliament, the courts, dissenters and objective media outlets.
Britain may be starting down the road towards a semi-authoritarian system led by a demagogue, in the manner of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey and other such sad cases.
Johnson’s success owes much to his theatrical skills as an artful dodger and a suave, bombastic deceiver. When he faces tough questions, he responds with distractions, grandiose pronouncements that dodge the issue. Many of them are, to use a wonderful Indian phrase, “tall promises”.
Some are the result of Trumpian, narcissistic laziness. He has repeatedly insisted that after Brexit, no border checks will be made on Northern Ireland’s trade. It appears that he has not actually read his agreement with the European Union, which contradicts his claim.
At times, his negligence has done grave damage. In 2017, he apparently failed to focus on advice from civil servants when commenting on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British woman jailed in Iran on a false charge of plotting to overthrow the government. His bungled remarks were used by the Iranian regime as fresh evidence against her, which made things worse.
Other distractions are intentional lies. In 2016, the side of his Brexit campaign bus displayed the false claim that Brexit would give Britain £350 million per week to spend on the health service which his government had severely underfunded. That slogan, which was later officially acknowledged to be untrue, has cropped up again at this election.
Like right-wing populists elsewhere, Johnson claims to speak for ‘the people’ against sinister elites who have caused great suffering for ordinary folk. This ignores his own elite background – Eton and Oxford – and the fact that his own party has governed for the last 14 years. Its austerity policies are responsible for that suffering. He also blames the European Union, even though it has poured massive funds into poor areas of Britain and is one of the few counterweights to austerity.
The elites that Johnson has denounced are leaders in the courts, the civil service, parliament and civil society over which he now seeks one-man control. His election manifesto proposes to restrict access to the courts and to undermine their powers to review ministers’ actions. That follows logically from his five-week shutdown of parliament, based on misleading statements to the queen, which the Supreme Court found to be illegal.
His manifesto also prepares the ground for strengthening what are called prerogative powers, or Henry VIII powers, which enable ministers to act without parliamentary or judicial oversight.
It also suggests that voters may need ID cards and driver’s licences to cast ballots at future elections. That is a clear attempt to prevent poorer citizens and students, both of whom tend to support rival parties, from voting.
His agenda also includes the erosion of basic rights. That is clear from his manifesto pledge to separate Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. It will become only the second European country to do so, alongside the continent’s one remaining dictatorship, Belarus.
Johnson’s bungling and lying are well known to many. During the election campaign, when an interviewer asked him about public trust in politicians, the studio audience burst into laughter.
But he still managed an election victory that could persuade him that he can pursue his extremism with impunity. He won for two main reasons. The opposition, which outpolled his party, was badly fragmented and poorly led. And crucially, large sections of the media gave him adoring support.
Several right-wing newspapers with large circulations celebrated his jovial, bombastic demagoguery and advocated forceful rule by a strong man. Some of them have long demonised the European Union and foreigners. But others which once published objective reports alongside measured conservative opinions now offer hysterical extremism, depicting judges and moderates as enemies of the people.
They echoed Johnson’s efforts to stigmatise minorities. He likened Muslim women who wear the veil to letter boxes, and falsely claimed that Turkey was about to join the European Union and that many of the 74 million Turks (read Muslims) would pour into Britain.
But his huge advantage in media coverage is not enough for Johnson. His menacing comments about objective news outlets sound like the beginnings of a vendetta. He refused to be grilled by a tough BBC interviewer who had tackled every other party leader. When controversy arose over that cowardly decision, his response was vengeful – a threat to review and possibly to remove the television licence fee which provides BBC funds. He also refused to join a party leaders’ debate on the environment on Channel Four. It mocked him by putting a melting ice sculpture at his place on the platform. In response, he threatened its licence as well.
Britain’s democracy may now be at risk.
James Manor is a professor in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is the author of numerous books including Power, Poverty and Poison: Disaster and Responsein an Indian City (1993) on the 1981 hooch disaster in Bangalore.