Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 27 June 2016

The UK will soon get as Prime Minister a very British version of Donald Trump

In the chaos that has resulted from the Brexit vote, not enough has been written about how this will almost certainly mean that we will have as Prime Minister someone who in many respects could be described as a British Donald Trump. They both benefited from privilege: in the US case with a large fortune and in the British case through class. They are both populists who gained and enhanced their popularity through the media, and most of the media loves them. They both have a habit of mendacity: you could almost imagine Johnson saying that the promise of £350 million a week extra for the NHS was ‘just a suggestion’. Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister, has described Johnson as like ‘Trump with a thesaurus’ when he says whatever he wants to win the Brexit vote.

Max Hastings, a well known journalist, historian, Conservative and former boss of Johnson, wrote four years ago that if Boris Johnson is the answer, “there is something desperately wrong with the question.” It is worth quoting later lines from that article:

“If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike, because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country.”

“I would not trust him with my wife nor – from painful experience – my wallet.”

“His chaotic public persona is not an act – he is, indeed, manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.”

“I would not take Boris's word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday.”

In other circumstances you might think this kind of language was distorted by some personal animosity, but unfortunately it all rings true. Johnson has been sacked from two jobs for lying. As Sonia Purnell, who has written a biography of Johnson, says: “Voters, feeling lied to and let down, yearn to be able to believe in their politicians again. But Johnson, for all his claims to be an authentic alternative, is more the problem than the answer.” These traits were very evident in the Brexit campaign: he was happy to let lies like Turkey was about to join the EU pass if they helped him win.

He did not lead the Brexit cause because of any long standing commitment . As Nick Cohen writes:
As late as February, Johnson was saying that leaving would embroil “the government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country”.

Instead his championing of the Brexit side derived from political opportunism. To be elected leader of the Conservative Party you have first to be chosen as one of two candidates by MPs. Before the referendum, although he was very popular among party members, he seemed not to have a great following among MPs, just as Trump is not popular among senior Republicans. Coming out in favour of Brexit changed that overnight. Once he had won and deposed David Cameron, he did not attempt to dispel the uncertainty he had created but preferred to firm up his chances in the forthcoming election for leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore become Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson plays the cultured aristocratic fool, and many love him for that. But if he becomes Prime Minister, as now seems almost certain, it may be the British public that ends up feeling played and foolish.


  1. Actually for once I wholeheartedly agree with you but frankly I think this "despair" if I may call it that extends to almost the whole of the political class.

    When I was young the front benches of both major parties were full of what I would call "serious" politicians, and one could envisage several on both sides as being potential prime ministers.

    Nowadays it's difficult to see any one that could be a prime minister on either side, even at the best of times.

    Although I voted for Brexit I recognised that the delivery of the project would require some degree of political talent and that we simply did not have it and that is an added risk factor and one that is not insignificant.

    However, there is many a slip... and Johnson may yet find his ambitions unfulfilled.

  2. I posted on this on Saturday under "There is a job to be done", Johnson is a no no because he cannot be trusted. It is obvious what is necessary.

  3. In breve: Beau rich Johnson will make hystery as LBJ, with L for lying.
    All is still to be played for. He can become first: first PM of England, even street numbers.

  4. The result is a very disappointing one. I don't think it is reversible. Blair says we should have a second referendum as with this discredited politician who will not be trusted by the public, there is no one with the credibility to lead, campaign and persuade the EU for a second referendum. (David Milliband will not have authority with the public - his views are ultra-globalisation, seen as far to close to the Islington establishment and too affiliated with New Labour and Blair.)

    The silver lining is maybe now the elite will listen. I am impressed with the coverage in the major newspapers explaining what happened. There is not a single answer - in places like Boston and Peterborough which had among the highest leave ratios it was EU immigration, and they have most definitely felt it. In Cornwall it was fishing. In the North and Wales it was the long term decline of heavy industry. Unlike what neo-classical theory says, but which many historians have long known, Britain has gone through a period of industrial decline, and this has not been compensated by the growth in financial services. Neo-classical theory (Romer etc) cannot tell you why some countries grow, some don't and how they decline. That requires deep historical knowledge. Common to all areas in England and Wales was probably a vote against London. Immigration is believed not to have contributed to the problem facing low income groups, even if that is true, you cannot discount resentment against mass immigration while we have these very long term trends of economic decline, reduced opportunities, inequality and associated marginalisation. One thing I am sure of, while it was an opportunity to express long suppressed frustrations, this was not, for most people, a vote against Europe - it was just that Europe was on the receiving end.

    Don't bang on about austerity and blame everything on it. These problems are much more fundamental. A macro expansion will not necessarily fix it (particularly if it relies solely on a monetary expansion). I also think that economists have to think very carefully about how they do their subject - it is linked to the problem.

    So I appreciate your efforts here, but if we can't get a reversal, hopefully we have learned from this very regrettable experience.


  5. “As he went on to admit, ‘as in religion, so in politics, few even of those who are enlightened enough to comprehend the meaning latent under the emblems of their faith can resist the contagion of the popular superstition. Often, when they flatter themselves that they are merely feigning a compliance with the prejudices of the vulgar, they are themselves under the influence of those very prejudices.’ Here, indeed, Macaulay for once seems more sophisticated than Bagehot, who, in The English Constitution, tends to make the distinction between the enlightened and the vulgar an absolute one” (J W Burrow, 1981).

    (Ditto for the Labour rebel MPs in constituencies voting sixty something percent for Leave).

  6. What are the chances of an Anyone-But-Boris alliance winning in the Tory succession process? Then again, I guess even if that happens, chances are that the eventual winner won't be much better than Boris.

  7. Did you know 2016 is the year of the monkey? More monkey business this year it would seem.

  8. Plus, both really need new barbers.

  9. I think Bryan Gould is well worth reading for a different view of Brexit and the post Brexit hysteria

    1. Like many people, I voted Remain because I thought the alternative was a step into the unknown. It's in the nature of such a step that states of the world which would previously have been assigned zero probability can now be given a positive one. I agree that Bryan Gould's back-to-1945 fantasyland is one of those, but it still seems extremely unlikely.

  10. Brief explanation why stone's comment and my reply (assuming it passes moderation) aren't completely o/t. Boris, and in another life David Cameron, were great proponents of the view that Brexit would simply be a return to the great country we were before we joined the EU. Which is total nonsense, because we were a different country in those days. We can't recreate the Empire or the fantasy-politics of the 1950s and 60s, when even chaps as sensible as Hugh Gaitskell made ridiculous claims for the Commonwealth. Brexit really does mean a new Britain, and frankly I'm more scared by politicians (Bryan Gould is one of the better ones) with clear but wildly conflicting notions of what it's going to be than opportunists such as Boris who don't have a freakin' clue.

  11. Simon, you must have your hands full at the moment - end of term and Corbyn's problems must also be affecting you - but it would be good though to follow these discussions in the comments which are a great part of the blogs in a reasonably timely manner. I am aware though of the difficulties and that blogging is not your day job.

  12. Good job he is not running for the Tory leadership then:

    "Boris Johnson says he will not run for Tory party leadership after Gove challenge"


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