Boris Johnson is dangerous and it is imperative we build a movement to stop him, argues Katherine Connelly
The crisis in the Conservative Party has meant that we have ended up with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Now is the time to ask some important questions. How did this happen? What does he represent? And, crucially, how can we get rid of him?
Johnson, the celebrity politician, was the unknown quantity in the EU referendum. A manifesto promise by David Cameron, to try and halt Conservative defections to UKIP, it was unclear which way Johnson would jump on the question. The leading institutions and individuals in British capitalism, whose parliamentary wing is the Conservative Party, were almost unanimously and vociferously for remaining within the EU. But the membership of the Conservative Party are less concerned with the interests of dynamic, neoliberal capitalism as with the conserve part of the Conservative Party; xenophobic and nationalistic, they favoured leaving.
Johnson grabbed the limelight, leaving his declaration until the last moment. Perhaps he was in two minds himself. He wrote one article for the Telegraph backing Leave, but also drafted another backing Remain. His calculation may have gone something like this: he had been rejected from the inner circle of David Cameron (a fellow former Bullingdon Club member), by backing Leave he could be the voice of the party membership and when Remain won, as most of the establishment smugly predicted it would, he would have to be included in the future Cabinet as a sop to the losers.
But Remain didn’t win. The British establishment, presiding over an increasingly yawning gap between rich and poor, have less and less understanding about what ordinary people in Britain think. According to Lord Ashcroft’s polls, the only socio-economic category of people who voted in the majority for Remain was the top one, the so-called ‘AB’. So the discontent expressed in the EU referendum necessarily represented something far deeper and more profound than the gripes of a few disgruntled members of the Conservative Party.
Now the Conservative Party was charged with carrying out a policy which was in direct opposition to the class interests it represents. This explains the deadlock which Theresa May found herself in and why, eventually, she was forced out – unable to deliver a Brexit deal that could satisfy the divided forces now in play.
A Prime Minister unable to pass key legislation through Parliament should, according to precedent, resign and call a general election. But, as argued in a previous article, the much-vaunted precedent of politics textbooks was revealed to be an inessential nicety as soon as it threatened to undermine the class interests at the heart of the government.
Why, then, did Boris Johnson end up as Prime Minister when he himself inadvertently played a key role in undermining exactly those interests?
The answer is Jeremy Corbyn and the successes of the left. In a flagrant assault on democracy, the top of the Conservative Party decided that they would rather the successor to Theresa May were chosen by the membership of the Conservative Party than by the electorate in a general election which Jeremy Corbyn would have a good chance of winning.
In this crisis for the establishment, the mask has been torn off the state itself. Usually presented as a neutral space where all political voices can be heard, it is now blatantly operating to stop the left. For evidence of this, we can turn to Boris Johnson’s bombastic speech on his electoral victory. He made the chilling claim that in “the last 200 years of this party’s existence, you will see that it is we Conservatives who have had the best insights”. So back to 1819 (the year of the Peterloo Massacre – Tory government) the Conservatives have had the “best insights”. Slavery, the violence of Empire, famines, opposition to binding employers by legislation, mass unemployment again and again, riots again and again, Section 28, the assault on the miners, Hillsborough, austerity – the best insights? But for Johnson, the Conservatives are so self-evidently the best party to govern that we do not even need a general election to endorse that view.
The task ahead was, he told his audience,
“the mantra of the campaign that has just gone by in case you’ve forgotten it. You probably have. It is: Deliver Brexit. Unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn. And that is what we’re going to do. We’re going to defeat Jeremy Corbyn.”
Note: not necessarily defeating Jeremy Corbyn in a general election. Johnson’s premiership, as he understands it, without a mandate, without a working majority, without the defence of precedent, is to crush the left. We have been warned.
This should come as no surprise. Boris’ persona could well be described as an emulation of Prince Philip on his more vocal public outings: the bigoted buffoon. At university in the mid 2000s, I remember that Boris was the darling of the Conservative student societies which celebrated his ‘outrageous’ ‘personality’. His newspaper columns, and those he published as an editor, were peppered with the language of racism, sexism, homophobia and class hatred. But the comments the press treat as jokes – the BBC ran with a piece on the day of Johnson’s election victory covering his most ‘colourful’ moments – are not jokes to Boris Johnson. This is a strategy to signal to the rabid Tory right that he is their spokesman. Johnson has adopted authoritarian stances before – as London Mayor he spent extortionate sums on water cannon trucks to deal with urban unrest. He is now allying himself with Donald Trump at a time when the US is pushing for another war in the Middle East.
What, then, does the ascendancy of an authoritarian buffoonish character mean? In 1852, Karl Marx wrote The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte about the dictatorial seizure of power in France by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – a figure that many had regarded as a joke, a caricature and an unstable character. Marx concluded that Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s election as French president, and later his seizure of power, revealed the French state for what it was.
The ‘election’ of Boris Johnson has revealed the crisis at the heart of, as well as the undemocratic nature of, the British state. There are, however, many important differences between the situation in which Marx was writing and in which we find ourselves – however much the pretentions of Johnson/Bonaparte might appear similar. These differences should provide us with cause for optimism and a spur to action. The first is that Bonaparte was (before his seizure of power) popularly elected and commanded a significant (though fragile) degree of popular support. Johnson is a deeply unpopular figure and there is huge potential to organise mass opposition to his premiership, to make it impossible for him to govern.
A second difference is that by the time Bonaparte seized power, the establishment forces that once regarded him as a joke now relied upon him to deliver ‘stability’ to France. Boris Johnson’s election is a manifestation of a ruling class in crisis. Johnson’s task is to try to become the solution to this crisis – something that he is likely to try to do with a combination of warmongering and authoritarianism which might just convince the establishment that he can stop widespread discontent coalescing into an organised challenge from the left. Our job is to stop that being an option by capitalising on this moment and deepening the crisis at the heart of the establishment.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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