Australian Outlook

In this section

Johnsonism and the Strange Death of Conservative England

03 May 2022
By Dr Ben Wellings
Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

The truth about Boris Johnson’s illegal parties during lockdown continues to slowly emerge. But it is not just Johnson’s future that is uncertain ‒ it is Conservatism itself.

Trust in politics is broken in Britain, and with it we are witnessing the strange death of Conservatism. The drip-feed of revelations from the “partygate” affair continue. For the first time in history that we know of, Britain has a prime minister who has broken the law while in office. More revelations of lawbreaking will no doubt follow.

Boris Johnson is known for stretching the boundaries of what is technically possible under Britain’s uncodified constitution – to the point of breaking it. But no matter: as long as Johnson remains as prime minister, his main political goal will have been achieved.

Unfortunately, the Conservative party now concurs with this narcissistic vision of politics. Despite ongoing calls for Johnson to go from influential political outsiders, he retains significant backbench support. The Conservative party has moved to defend its leader beyond all other considerations, including when he broke the law and therefore – despite pleas to the contrary – presumably misled Parliament.

This will come back to haunt the Conservatives at some stage before the next general election, scheduled for 2024. This is not just because of the popular anger at Johnson breaking the rules that his government set. It is because what we might call “Johnsonism” rests on the unstable foundations of voter anger over Brexit.

Before examining Johnsonism, a word of caution is necessary: there might be nothing coherent to examine. But this is perhaps the point. In contrast with other “-isms,” there is seemingly little to Johnsonism beyond the ”technopopulist” containment of spot-fires for the benefit of his own political career. This makes what now passes for “politics” look like a game for entitled members of British society.

Johnsonism – understood as one man’s personal style bolstered by loyalty to him as leader – is therefore further entrenching a dangerous cynicism towards politics in the UK. Brexit was supposed to be a transformative moment, one that – depending on who you asked – would free up Britain’s apparently constrained potential. It would do so by opening up the UK for true free trade (see comments by Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Jacob Rees-Mogg), while overhauling a civil service that was a “dragging anchor” for innovation in governance (see comments by Dominic Cummings). COVID-19 may have spared the Brexiteers’ blushes because it is hard to tell the negative or positive effects of Brexit through the fog of the pandemic, which followed closely on Britain’s (but not the UK’s) final withdrawal from the EU and its rules.

Nevertheless, all the government rhetoric about “Brexit opportunities” rings hollow when seen from outside of the social realms of the Establishment. If all you can see is that Marks and Spencer has shut its store in your town, it doesn’t seem like Brexit opportunity has come knocking. “Levelling-up” – the latest attempt to address the stark wealth inequalities that exist within England and across the UK – was the domestic dividend of Brexit that the Johnson-led Conservatives promised at the 2019 general election. Again, somewhat clouded by the effects of the pandemic, it has thus far underwhelmed.

The term “England” is used advisedly. Another feature of the strange death of Conservatism is that the party’s historic commitment to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – a defining feature for the past century – has withered. The “hyper-Unionist” rhetoric from the Conservatives against the push for a second referendum on Scottish independence in 2023 may well encourage Scots to consider voting to leave the UK anew. As for the uncertain position of Northern Ireland in the UK after Brexit, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Six Counties of Ulster were put into the “too-hard basket” by England’s Conservatives a long time ago – if they ever thought about it much at all. If Northern Ireland were to slip its UK moorings, it is likely that few in the Conservative party would demur.

Thus, for the “left-behind” and “just about managing” in England’s small and medium-sized northern towns, or independence-minded Scots, or the people of Northern Ireland, the idea that Britain is once again “global” ‒ and hence, “great” ‒ because of an “east of Suez” deployment of aircraft carriers is cold comfort. What the “partygate” affair has given England is the same dynamic that so angered the electorate over Brexit: a stark difference between politics in Westminster and wider public opinion.

For now, Boris Johnson can thank Rishi Sunak’s waning fortunes and Vladimir Putin’s strategic blunder for his political survival. The Labour Party is not letting go of the issue, even if Conservatives argue that this is no time to criticise the British prime minister as he confronts Russia aggression in Ukraine.

But this focus on Johnson is somewhat misplaced. The most important part of this situation is not concern for Johnson’s career, but about the damage to trust in politics that he and his party are exacerbating. Cleaving to leader loyalty at Westminster, the Conservatives are hollowing out their party’s own political traditions and weakening the bonds that unite the nations of the United Kingdom.

Ben Wellings is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Monash University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.