Boris Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative Party, by a 2/3rds margin of party members. He traveled to Buckingham Palace to meet with the Queen, where he was formally asked to form a government. Though Johnson was swept to power with apparent ease in the leadership election ─appearing as heir apparent to beleaguered premier Theresa May from the beginning of the contest─ the 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.
Who is Boris Johnson?
For readers outside of the UK who won’t have been subjected to the near ubiquitous presence of Boris Johnson, an introduction may be of use. Born into a semi-aristocratic family, Johnson was educated at Eton College and Oxford University before becoming a journalist, eventually becoming 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 of London before once again entering parliament in the 2015 election. In 2016 he was a prominent figure in the Leave campaign preceding the referendum on EU membership, and served a foreign secretary in Theresa May’s government until resigning in July 2018 over May’s 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 London 2012 Olympics. He uses this cartoonish person 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 amongst 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 political crisis the British ruling class is currently experiencing has its roots in the 2008-9 global economic crisis and the 2011 European economic crisis. Whilst post this crisis, 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. Over these years Euroskeptics in the Conservative Party, who wish to see a return to the extreme laissez faire economic policies of the Thatcher era grew in power, and 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% – 48%. Cameron resigned, and Theresa May (a ‘soft’ Remain supporter seen as a safe pair of hands), became prime minister. (Gerogiou, 2017, pp. 91-93)
Her premiership was dogged by problems from the very beginning. The majority of MPs sitting in parliament had campaigned to remain members of the EU. In an attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and smooth the path for her 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. She lost her small parliamentary majority, and had to enter into a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party – a party which represents the Loyalist communities in the north of Ireland who oppose any attempt to lessen Britain’s control over the occupied north of Ireland. The DUP’s politics are based in 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, and the loyalists she relied on for her parliamentary majority, and the still majority remain parliament, was unable to pass her Brexit deal 3 times in the House of Commons, leaving her only option to request an extension to the date where Britain will leave the EU (to October 31st 2019), and to resign as prime minister, which she did on the 7th June.
After a short leadership contest, Boris 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 the UK, though officially out of the EU, would still maintain close formal ties with the EU). He 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 ‘4 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 re-negotiated deal with the European Union which is agreed by parliament, or through a ‘no deal’ scenario which sees the UK leave the EU without a trade deal giving it access to the European Single Market. The fact that Johnson has been loudly and consistently supporting leaving the EU at any cost since the 2016 Leave campaign has meant that he was chosen over more conciliatory candidates, and he has since stated that the UK will be leaving the EU on October 31st ‘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 the issue of a no-deal brexit, with high profile resignations on the eve of Boris’s premiership and 30 Tory MPs threatening to block if a No Deal Brexit ─something flirted with by Johnson─ if necessary in October. Johnson has shown his commitment to pushing for Brexit whatever the cost by hiring former Leave campaign staff ─including Dominic Cummings who headed the leave campaign and was recently found in contempt of parliament for his conduct during the campaign. This is despite the EU calling Johnson’s statements on a no-deal Brexit ‘pure rubbish’ soon after he was announced as prime minister. However, 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 north of Ireland or Scotland out of the UK, significant damage to the economy, and even the destruction of their own party if it meant securing the UK’s exit from the EU. These are the members who voted in their droves to make Boris Johnson the next prime minister.
This is uncanny crisis of British conservatism – where the membership of the Conservative and Unionist Party (to use it’s full name) would throw away the very union (that of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which forms the United Kingdom) which there party has spent so much of its history defending.
The driving force of this new conservative politics is its class and national basis – over half of the less than 200,000 members of conservative party are over 55, middle or upper class, and live in the south of England. Where as previously, conservatism saw a benefit in keeping the union together – attendant with it’s brutal (and often profitable) subjugation of the north of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Now, however, a deep parochialism has set in, and these members see less value of keeping England in a political union with the nations that they see as little more than a tax suck.
This in turn is mirrored by an increase in support for independence in both Scotland and Wales, with a recent poll in the Sunday Times suggesting that a Johnson premiership would see a majority of Scots come out in favour of leaving the union.
Indeed, indicative of this new callousness to the issue of maintaining the union of the UK, Boris’s approach to the issue of the Irish border. In a hustings ahead of the final leadership vote, Johnson stated with regards to the ‘Irish Backstop’ – a mechanism which 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 – he announced he would not compromise at all, and wishes 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. However, a hard Irish border could 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, Boris’s appeal to the imperial nostalgia and English parochialism of the Conservative Party rank and file is buttressed by his deeply anti-worker politics. Indeed, 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 Boris’s commitment to defeating Jeremy Corbyn as one of the 3 priorities behind his premiership, he is showing not simply his commitment to defeat a political rival, but to defeat ‘red-toothed, red-clawed’ socialism, and as such any resistance to the Euroskeptic right’s aim to complete Thatcher’s ‘revolution’ of a privatised, low wage economy.
Boris 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 he will call a general election either in this autumn or next spring. Given the composition of his base within the party, a challenge to the right from the insurgent Brexit Party headed by Nigel Farrage, and the threat of Corbynite social democracy, that this will be fought with the same right wing, revanchist campaign that he fought to leave the EU, as well as which he fought this leadership contest. The outcome will depend on whether or not Johnson choses to push towards a No-Deal Brexit as he indicated in his leadership campaign, 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 is likely the former.
A dangerous scenario is likely to follow, not only from an emboldened far right, but from a state which has historically turned to mass violence (most notably in the north of Ireland and during the Miners’ Strike) to keep a lid on the exploding social tensions and the resistance of working and oppressed people engendered by the crisis of British capitalism and the right’s attempts to solve it.
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 neo-liberal centrism), but a broad and militant struggle to not only defend ourselves, but to push beyond the limits of conventional parliamentary socialism and take full advantage of this chronic crisis of Britain’s ruling class.
Georgiou, Christakis. (2017). “British Capitalism and European Unification, from Ottawa to the Brexit Referendum”. Historical Materialism. 25. 90-129.