Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Johnson leads a populist government which should not be normalised


Did Trump move Republican policy to the left? Before you think too hard about that, I want to suggest it misses the point. Trump was a populist. Populism is a much abused word, but I want to use it in the way set out by Jan-Werner Müller. For him populism is a form of anti-pluralism, a government that does not accept any constraints on its power beyond the electorate (at least as long as they win elections).

I want to look at two recent discussions of the Johnson government in this light. The first is by John Rentoul, who describes this as the most left wing Conservative government since Ted Heath and possibly forever. It describes a common idea (on the left and right) that this government cannot be right wing because it has ‘opened the fiscal floodgates’. The second is by Will Davies, who puts part of the success of this government down to ‘discretion rather than rules’, and in taming the Treasury. I want to suggest that both would follow naturally from the populist nature of this government, but so far the Treasury and Chancellor have not been tamed as much as these accounts suggest.

The populism, or anti-pluralism, of this government is as clear as it could be in its latest Queen’s Speech, which sets out what the government intends to do over the next session of parliament. It contains a bill that will restrict the ability of the courts to hold the government to account. No longer will the courts be able to stop the government closing down parliament. It contains a bill to make photo-ID compulsory in elections, which is a form of gerrymandering. The voting system in Mayoral and PCCs elections will be changed to FPTP, because it favours the Conservatives. It also contains a bill that will allow the police (and therefore the Home Secretary) to ban any demonstration they do not like.

This government just does not do accountability. No minister has resigned since the cabinet was formed just after the general election, despite many scandals that would have led to resignation in the past. The institutions of government that guard against ministerial wrongdoing, like the ministerial code, are now effectively meaningless as Johnson can and has overridden them. Parliament, that was once the ultimate source of power, is no longer, as the government increasingly ignores its existence. Johnson treats any opposition as an annoyance, constantly questioning why it is opposing rather than supporting his policies.

Like all populists of the Trump, Orban type, Johnson aims through media dominance and habitual lying to create an alternative reality where the government are heroes rather than villains. There was never ever any plan by the government to achieve herd immunity, we were told (and continue to be told) in all seriousness after the government ditched its plan for herd immunity. Of course all governments spin, but gross lying like this is rare in normal governments, but it becomes the habitual first resort of populists.

Most government’s arrive with an extensive policy agenda, and spend the first few years of their administration putting that agenda into law. This government had one policy, Brexit. Brexit as implemented by this government is a classic populist (in the Müller sense) policy. Not only was the policy promoted as the will of the people, where ‘the people’ excluded the 48% who voted against it, but it was enacted in a very populist (but unpopular) way, where any potential restraints on the government’s power from the EU (restraints we would normally call intergovernmental cooperation) were eliminated as being anti-Brexit.

There is only one constraint that this government does not intend to eliminate, and that is having to be elected whenever it chooses to hold an election or after 5 years. As a result, much of what it does is designed to make that more likely. Brexit was won by getting the votes of socially conservative voters, which is why the government is obsessed by being as nasty as it can be to asylum seekers and other immigrants, and why it talks so much about an anti-WOKE agenda. (Whether ‘the people’ are as obsessed by either is an interesting question.) Because it now has many more seats in the North it has a ‘leveling up’ agenda. If you look at many of the elements of that agenda we have seen so far, it amounts to channeling money to Tory parliamentary constituencies rather than areas of deprivation.

What the government will do, at any opportunity, is to help its friends and financial backers. It saw the COVID pandemic as a means of turning a crisis into opportunity, by farming out large elements of test and trace to the private sector and PPE procurement to its friends. It will override planning laws, and therefore the objections of its often traditional Tory voters, to allow its friends in the building industry to build more houses and make more profit.

If you're tempted to think that all this is not so very different from what all governments do, let me finally note another characteristic of populists: their governments are all about those at its head, who are generally narcissistic individuals who really don’t care about anyone except themselves. Johnson fits that bill, appointing a cabinet that was not the best of all talents but just those that would follow his lead. Crucially populists produce governments that don’t care about other people very much, except when they vote for them. Only a populist could dream of dealing with COVID with a policy of herd immunity, which means the government does nothing while hundreds of thousands die, just so that they could have a stronger economy than other countries subsequently. [1]

Does the furlough scheme, and the massive spend on test and trace, indicate that all fiscal restraint has gone? Of course not. The furlough scheme is just a natural counterpart to government imposed lockdown. That is why European governments adopted similar schemes. It has avoided substantial unemployment, and the last thing this government wants is large numbers of people who vote for it to experience Universal Credit (and see their savings disappear). As for test and trace, the government saw that as a good opportunity to sustain certain companies in the private sector.

As to fiscal rules and the power of the Treasury, the Treasury and Chancellor Rushi Sunak still have a kind of fiscal rule, which is that government debt should be falling in the medium term. This is why large areas of public spending face further tightening [2] and taxes are planned to rise. The fiscal stimulus during the recovery amounts to a single measure to bring investment forward, and looks feeble compared to what Biden is doing in the US. This is because Sunak still believes in fiscal restraint, and he has sold that to Johnson as being an essential part of the Conservative brand.

The term I would use for the government’s fiscal response to the pandemic and its subsequent recovery spending is not that it is left wing for a Conservative government, but that it is ironically rather European. The UK’s approach to recovery, like that adopted in the Eurozone, remains obsessed with stabilising the level of government debt. To argue in either case that their response to the pandemic shows that the fiscal floodgates are now permanently open would simply be wrong.

In looking at how left wing a government is, I think it is at least as important to look at what the government is or isn’t trying to do about inequality as it is to look at fiscal policy. Child poverty has risen over recent years under a Conservative government and is expected to rise further under this government. The pandemic has hit poorer households badly, whereas most other households have increased their savings, further increasing poverty and inequality. This government shows no signs of doing anything about any of this, and prefers to just lie about it when challenged. As poverty gets almost no attention in the media, this is likely to continue.

Of course populists prefer discretion rather than rules, as long as it is their discretion. [3] So why does Johnson, who has little time for fiscal rules, allow Sunak and the Treasury to plan as if one was still there? Here we need to talk about another possible constraint on populists, and that is their party. If Johnson goes too far in the eyes of enough Tory MPs he could be deposed. While a vocal number of Tory MPs (vocal in part because they had the support of the Tory press) were complaining about lockdowns last year, another large part were worried that Johnson was just not up to the job of managing a pandemic. His position in 2020 was insecure, which is partly why he was happy for Sunak to plan to raise taxes in areas that most voters would never experience directly. Whether Johnson remains happy now that his position is stronger will depend on whether he believes fiscal restraint is essential in winning elections. .

Once you see Johnson as a populist, it becomes obvious that he will hate any constraints on his power, whether they come from rules or directly from the Treasury. He will spend money on his friends (whether donors to the party or donors to himself), and will spend money in any way that secures his position with the voters, as long perhaps as he can claim to be fiscally responsible. The danger of describing such spending as left wing, or as reducing the power of the Treasury, is that it normalises a populist government: a populist government that will be defined by history for its authoritarianism, lack of accountability, habitual lying, inhumanity, corruption and anti-pluralism.

[1] The herd immunity policy only ended when it became clear it would lead to NHS chaos, which would look very bad and would threaten the government’s popularity. Ever since in Johnson’s mind overwhelming the NHS, rather than deaths or illness per se, has been the constraint on doing nothing. It is why he intends to ignore the Indian variant because he is hoping a large spike in cases will not lead to an overwhelmed NHS. It is nevertheless a foolish policy in its own terms, because a large rise in cases will severely limit the recovery.

[2] I can find only one area of public spending that will see an improvement in the funding they need over the next few years: education. NHS spending grows rapidly but that needs to happen to maintain the same level of service, and some of that increase may be eaten up by recovery from the pandemic. If any of the other areas of public spending are to improve over the next few years, either the cuts to other areas will be greater or the government’s spending plans will have to be revised.

[3] The Davies article is more interesting than this sentence might suggest. He is absolutely right that the most fiscally responsible government under Blair/Brown is believed otherwise only because of subsequent unchallenged (by Labour) Tory spin. However I think the ‘second government’ that operated under Brown, where the Treasury had more control over the details of departmental spending than it ever had before, was unique to the Granita accord. Neither Osborne or Hammond had the same degree of interest in what other departments did, although legacies of the brown era might have remained. (A major criticism of Osborne is that his cuts were largely arbitrary, with little interest in their economic consequences.) Fiscal rules, on the other hand, always make sense if they are good rules. Problems arise when they are not, and are used as cover to implement other objectives.

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