What is Johnson?/What is Johnsonism?

EDITION: Bad New Times.

Boris Johnson enthusiastically embraces a style of politics of a pre-democratic age, and repurposes it for an increasingly post-democratic one.

This piece is part of our What Is ‘Johnsonism’? series.

On ‘what is Johnson’, I feel I may as well just link to this 1982 letter of complaint about him and have done with it, since almost nothing has changed since Eton. In his general approach to politics he remains an unrepentant and entitled schoolboy operating through brazenness, chutzpah and disregard for consequences. The networks, cliques, ambitions and rivalries he developed at Eton and Oxford are still affecting his style of government and all our lives.

This cavalierness of principle was shown in his marriage of convenience with Vote Leave, as well as his obvious discomfort immediately after the Brexit vote. He’d hitched his wagon to the right-populist star that was Vote Leave, but clearly in the expectation of a glorious narrow defeat that would leave him opposing a weakened rival in David Cameron and able to present himself as a Brexiteer king over the water. Winning meant responsibility and accountability (though he’s continued to evade both). Similarly, he wanted the job title of Prime Minister but none of the work, and surely liked the idea of it more than he does the current reality.

His 90s Have I Got News For You days are long gone and I’d be amazed if anyone still believed in that particular clown-prince incarnation of Boris. Though he still trades on looking incompetent and chaotic – that picture of him hanging from a zipline clutching the union flag is iconic for all the wrong reasons – he’s dialled back on that a bit through force of circumstance. He’s always been conscious of the advantage of defining your own presentation – even if people think you’re a clown, you’re still getting to control the conditions in which they think about you. Even his casually racist ‘bits’ are often couched in self-conscious absurdity, using florid and archaic language to encourage disbelief and plausible deniability, all ‘part of the act’. As with Brexit, it suits him to be seen as someone who never really means what he says, or understands the task in front of him, and so can be forgiven for continual lies and empty promises. In fact he is extremely competent at what he wants to achieve, ie accrue power and enjoy himself, and his clownish carapace conceals how ruthless an operator he is in this respect.

Underneath all his bluster, I get the impression he wants to be loved, and wants ideally to preside (as distinct from be Prime Minister) over the kind of boom-time optimism, however shallow and disingenuous it was, that Blair’s early years in government exemplified. This was his absurdist, wilfully wishful thinking vision for a post-Brexit Britain, I think, if anyone had asked him. In the 2019 GE he offered himself as a kind of Lord of Misrule as well as a practical getting-things-done figure, and hasn’t really lived up to either, partly obviously due to Covid-19 but also due to him being a chancer and opportunist who doesn’t ever want to actually work and take responsibility.

His final approach to Withdrawal Agreement negotiations and to Brexit as a whole, and his early ‘take it on the chin’ recommendation re. Covid-19, demonstrated that at a fundamental level, he just likes gleefully crashing into things. He never expects to find himself doing this when not starting from a position of capital-driven strength and without something to fall back on. So his response to the pandemic and being hospitalised is interesting – meeting an opponent he can’t overcome through bullying, lying and clowning.

One of the worst things about Johnson’s evident inability to handle crisis is how foreseeable and forewarned it was. Not only from the left – a notable number of Johnson’s former colleagues in journalism did in fact warn about his irresponsibility and laziness, and the studied nature of his shambolicness has been exposed several times. A number of Tory colleagues pronounced him impossible to work with and a bad choice for the country, including his younger brother, but the gravity and abnormal nature of this criticism was lost in anti-Labour hatchet jobs and sensationalism.

Or perhaps it even became a virtue: the arrogance, workshyness and recklessness he embodies – and the impression, however calculated, of hurried untidiness and lack of preparation – are, after all, values continually demonised in the lower classes and indulged in the upper ones. Does this play as vicariously aspirational with a certain layer of voters? Would we all like to get away with what Boris does? When does the thrill of irresponsibility wear off? And if the joke hasn’t worn thin by now, will it ever?

What is Johnsonism?

As happened in the 1990s with Black Wednesday on the Major government’s watch, capitalism and conservatism are currently failing even on their own terms. They are at once out of ideas, but also steadily co-opting other not always traditionally Tory strains of right-wing thought, which can be seen in their focusing on culture wars, in a Cabinet of Britannia Unchained zealots, disaster capitalists, overpromoted mediocrities and landlords, and in their reliance on pseudoscientific grifters like Dominic Cummings.

For all that Johnson gets bracketed with Trump, his own instincts are plainly libertarian or even Tory wet, rather than the cryptofascism that’s sometimes applied to him. He’s already compromised these instincts by allying with those further right than him over Brexit, but authoritarian rule would be too much like hard work – though he’s certainly capable of blithely delegating it. He may preside over what becomes an accelerated oligarchy, but he’s unlikely to actively administer it. His subordinating all else to electoral victory looks pretty late-stage Blairite/Clintonian. He also hasn’t got Trump’s solid base, rather he’s pulled together an inchoate and unstable coalition of class fractions, playing to both imperial nostalgia and material discontent, which leaves him open to defenestration by the party if he does become a liability and if internal tensions pull that coalition apart. He already acknowledges that former ‘Red Wall’ voters are volatile and will be quick to abandon the Tories if their 2019 gamble doesn’t pay off in terms of visible change, but he shows few signs of being willing or able to deliver it – which makes me worry about a renewed emphasis on muddied culture wars that frames the ‘real’ working class against the ‘metropolitan elite’, regardless of Johnson being firmly entrenched as the latter.

Any danger of authoritarianism comes from where Johnson does perhaps resemble Trump: in the cast-iron conviction that rules don’t apply to him – often justified through the overt or implicit insistence that he’s somehow cleverer than everyone else – the assumption of impunity, and the petulance and pique when this is disproven, as in his response to the Supreme Court ruling on Parliament’s prorogation. Responses to his government’s undermining of other branches of the executive (the courts, the Lords, as well as the police and press) need to be balanced between recognising that these branches are also flawed – see the media’s largely supine attitude to him and active collusion with Tory attack-lines during the 2019 GE – but are necessary for a functioning liberal democracy.

Although he draws on Churchill, Johnson more obviously embodies a certain strain of eighteenth-century ruling-class Englishness, the sort of grotesques you see in a Gillray cartoon.

Although he draws on Churchill, Johnson more obviously embodies a certain strain of eighteenth-century ruling-class Englishness, the sort of grotesques you see in a Gillray cartoon. This strain, pre-industrial capitalist and pre-mass franchise, is being repurposed for a post-capitalist and increasingly disenfranchised age. As London Mayor, he conjured follies, spent money, and made little lasting change other than personal promotion. What’s grimly interesting about him as Prime Minister is, again, the wider collusion with this pre-democratic vision of politics – like the Telegraph’s weird insistence during his hospitalisation that his “health is the health of the nation”, built around Boris as ‘the king’s body’ as deliberately opposed to any idea of popular sovereignty. This rejection or working-around of democracy is one aspect of the current Tories that’s deeply rooted within the party’s history. Even Disraeli’s ‘One-Nation Conservatism’, which early Johnsonism sometimes gestured at, was a cynical attempt to deal with the inconveniently expanded franchise rather than a commitment to it.

How do Labour respond to Johnsonism? One important aspect of his handling of Covid-19 is that his initial laissez-faire dithering, assuming things will work themselves out without him having to do much work, has caused spectacular damage. Rishi Sunak’s subsequent embracing of state intervention and state largesse is clearly a temporary measure, and it’s easy to see it leading to renewed austerity in a landscape further depleted of small business and the just-surviving middle classes. In the absence of an opposition that responds to this by opposing austerity and justifying state intervention, Johnson may be more responsive to internal Tory threats and pressure than to any from Labour. Labour therefore needs to address structural issues rather than return to centrism – which, as already pointed out, hasn’t won an election since 2005 – and resist the urge to focus on individual symptoms, however morbid, rather than their causes. The recent furore around Cummings’ lockdown rule-breaking, gratifying as it may have been to see his public image shift from Rasputin to Marie Antoinette, should be widened beyond court politics, particularly as Johnson’s doubling-down in defence of Cummings demonstrates he’s less led by the public mood and instead ready to use it when useful – and to lionise it as ‘the will of the people’ – and ignore it when not.


Rhian E. Jones (@rhianejones)

Rhian E. Jones writes on history, politics, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is co-editor of Red Pepper and writes for Tribune magazine. Her books include Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender (zer0, 2013); Petticoat Heroes: Gender, Culture and Popular Protest (University of Wales Press, 2015); Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible (Repeater, 2017) and the anthology of women’s music writing Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them (Repeater, 2017) and Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too (Repeater, 2021).