Boris Johnson and the crisis of British politics

August 1, 2019
Cartoon by Alan Moir. Reprinted with permission.

Boris Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative Party on July 23 by two-thirds of party members.

Though Johnson was swept to power with apparent ease in the leadership election ─ appearing as heir apparent to beleaguered former Prime Minister Theresa May from the beginning of the contest ─ deep divisions in parliament and the British public at large mean that delivering his three promises “deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn“ will be a great challenge, writes John Lawrence.

Born into a semi-aristocratic family, Johnson was educated at Eton College and Oxford University before becoming a journalist. He eventually became assistant editor of the arch-conservative paper, The Telegraph, before moving on to edit the conservative magazine The Spectator.

He was elected to parliament in 2001, where he sat as an MP for Henley until he successfully beat incumbent Labour Mayor Ken Livingstone to become the Mayor of London. He served two terms as Mayor before once again entering parliament in the 2015 election.

Johnson was a prominent figure in the Leave campaign preceding the referendum on European Union membership in 2016 and served as foreign secretary in May’s government until resigning in July last year over her handling of Brexit.

Over the years he built up a persona as a humourous, buffoonish figure, after appearing on British political comedy shows and making a number of gaffes like getting stuck on a zip wire over the Thames during the 2012 London Olympics.

He uses this cartoonish persona to great effect to mask his deeply reactionary core beliefs, as shown by his history of empire apologism and nostalgia, racism, sexism and a virulent anti-working-class attitude.

He also has a reputation among fellow politicians and journalists as being deeply opportunistic, a “known liar”, and “a man apparently devoid of deep conviction about anything other than his own importance”.

Why is British politics in crisis over Brexit?

The current political crisis in the British ruling class has its roots in the 2008-9 Global Financial Crisis and the 2011 European economic crisis.

In the period following, the core European powers instituted a policy of wage depression and structural adjustment in the peripheral eurozone economies. At the same time, the European Union embarked on a process of centralisation to shore up its institutions against further political and economic crisis.

This opened up discussion on Britain’s relationship with the wider European project. British banking capital always had an ambivalent relationship with the European project — benefiting from access to markets, but resisting attempts at centralisation, which could erode the importance of the City of London as an international finance hub.

During these years, Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party, who wished to see a return to the extreme laissez faire economic policies of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s era, grew in power.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron (a pro-EU member of the Conservative party), offered a referendum on EU membership in 2015, hoping for a Remain victory, which would quiet the opposition within his party and settle the issue of European membership for a generation.

This tactic backfired, as the British public voted to leave the EU by 52% to 48%. Cameron resigned, and May (a “soft” Remain supporter seen as a safe pair of hands) became Prime Minister.

May’s Prime Ministership was dogged by problems from the very beginning. The majority of sitting MPs had campaigned to remain members of the EU. In an attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and smooth the path for Brexit negotiations, May called a General Election in 2016, only to lose significant ground to a resurgent Labour Party headed by “democratic socialist” Jeremy Corbyn.

May lost her small parliamentary majority, and had to enter into a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party — representing the Loyalist communities in the north of Ireland who oppose any attempt to lessen Britain’s control. The DUP’s politics are based on an extreme social conservatism, evangelical protestantism and protestant supremacy. The party has links to the Loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.

May — stuck between the emboldened Eurosceptic wing of her party, the loyalists she relied on for her parliamentary majority, and the still majority Remain parliament — was unable to pass her Brexit deal in the House of Commons on three occasions. Her only option was to request an extension to the date where Britain would leave the EU (to October 31), and to resign as prime minister, which she did on June 7.

After a short leadership contest, Johnson — a man who was extremely prominent in the Leave campaign, and someone who resisted all of May’s attempts to institute a “soft” Brexit deal (where Britain, though officially out of the EU, would still maintain close formal ties with the EU) — was elected.

Johnson now stands at the top of a deeply divided party, with a mandate from its membership to pursue a “hard” Brexit — one where Britain fully rejects the “four freedoms” of European Single Market membership — free movement of people, capital, goods and services and rejects any EU law as having precedence over British law.

What next for Boris and Brexit?

First and foremost, Johnson will be expected to deliver Brexit — either through a renegotiated deal with the EU, which is agreed by parliament, or through a “no deal” scenario, that is, without a trade deal giving it access to the European Single Market.

The fact that Johnson has loudly and consistently supported leaving the EU at any cost since 2016 meant he was chosen over more conciliatory candidates. He has since stated that Britain will be leaving the EU on October 31 “deal or no deal”. Such a choice highlights the deep crisis which has engulfed British conservatism since the Brexit referendum of 2016.

The parliamentary Conservative Party is deeply divided over a no-deal Brexit. There were high profile resignations on the eve of Johnson’s premiership and 30 Tory MPs are threatening to block a no-deal Brexit ─ something Johnson flirted with ─ if necessary, in October.

Johnson has shown his commitment to pushing for Brexit, whatever the cost, by hiring former Leave campaign staff, including one of its leaders, Dominic Cummings. Cummings was recently found in contempt of parliament for his conduct during the campaign.

The EU called Johnson’s statements on a no-deal Brexit “pure rubbish” soon after he was announced as prime minister. Despite this, the membership of the Conservative Party shows a remarkable dedication to leaving the European Union — at the expense of almost any other issue.

The majority of the membership would rather see the north of Ireland or Scotland out of Britain, significant damage to the economy and even the destruction of their own party, if it meant securing Britain’s exit from the EU. These are the members who voted in their droves to make Johnson prime minister.

This is the uncanny crisis of British conservatism – where the membership of the Conservative and Unionist Party (to use its full name) would throw away the very union — of Britain and Northern Ireland to form the United Kingdom — which their party has spent much of its history defending.

The driving force of this new conservative politics is its class and national basis. More than half of the (less than) 200,000 members of the Conservative Party are over 55, middle or upper class, and live in the south of England.

Previously, conservatism saw a benefit in keeping the union together — attendant with its brutal (and often profitable) subjugation of the north of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Now, however, a deep parochialism has set in, and its members see less value in keeping England in a political union with the nations they see as a tax drain.

This is mirrored by an increase in support for independence in both Scotland and Wales. A recent Sunday Times poll suggested that a majority of Scots would come out in favour of leaving the union if Johnson was prime minister.

Indicative of this new callousness to maintaining the union of the UK is Johnson’s approach to the issue of the Irish border. The “Irish Backstop” is a mechanism that would allow the north of Ireland to remain part of the European customs union to prevent a hard border between the occupied north of Ireland and the Republic. On the hustings ahead of the final leadership vote, Johnson announced he would not compromise and wished the backstop scrapped.

This is likely a sop to the 10 Ulster Unionist MPs who will prop up his government, as they did May’s, who see any kind of backstop — which would mean a customs border between the whole of Ireland and the Irish Sea — as an unacceptable separation of the north from mainland Britain.

A hard Irish border could also violate the Good Friday Agreement and — in the context of a rising radical republicanism in both the North and South of Ireland — cause a significant threat to the fragile peace with which the occupation has maintained itself in the North since 1997.

Beyond the question of the break-up of the union, Johnson’s appeal to the imperial nostalgia and English parochialism of the Conservative Party rank and file is buttressed by his deeply anti-worker politics.

The driving force behind the Leave campaign was the wish to turn Britain into a low tax, low regulation financial centre — a Singapore off the coast of Europe.

In Johnson’s commitment to defeating Corbyn as one of his three priorities, he is showing not simply his commitment to defeat a political rival, but to defeat “red-toothed, red-clawed” socialism and any resistance to the Eurosceptic right’s aim to complete Thatcher’s “revolution” of a privatised, low-wage economy.

Johnson is the natural response to the political crisis engulfing British politics. Stuck between electoral arithmetic, an intransigent EU and the insurgent forces of the Brexit-backing right, he has ridden a wave of right-wing populism, which seeks to smash any and all opposition to its rise.

It is likely, given his tenuous majority in parliament, and the moves by some of his MPs to rebel against a no-deal outcome, that Johnson will call a general election either in October or April 2020.

Given the composition of his base within the party, a challenge to the right from Nigel Farrage’s insurgent Brexit Party and the threat of Corbynite social democracy, this election will be fought with the same right-wing, revanchist campaign he fought to leave the EU and to win the leadership.

The outcome will depend on whether or not Johnson chooses to push towards a no-deal Brexit, despite the disastrous political, social and economic consequences, or whether (as some commentators hope) he will show his more pragmatic side — as he did when he was the Mayor of London. Given the forces that keep him in power (the DUP in parliament and the resurgent right in his party), it will more likely be the former.

A dangerous scenario is likely to follow, from an emboldened far right and from a state that has historically turned to mass violence (most notably in the north of Ireland and during the 1984–5 Miners’ Strike) to keep a lid on exploding social tensions and the resistance of working and oppressed people engendered by the crisis of British capitalism.

What is required, is not simply an electoral defence of a Corbyn-led Labour Party (in part hobbled by its own insurgents seeking a return to the normalcy of neoliberal centrism), but a broad and militant struggle to defend ourselves and to push beyond the limits of conventional parliamentary socialism and take full advantage of this chronic crisis of Britain’s ruling class.

[Abridged from Abstrakt.]

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