Last week, Boris Johnson announced that he would resign from his role as leader of the Conservative Party, which will now choose his successor as Prime Minister. Johnson, the former mayor of London, led the Tories to a sweeping election victory in 2019 and guided his country’s withdrawal from the European Union. Since then, he has been beset by a constant string of scandals, often stemming from his own lies, and the violation of his own government’s COVID rules. His resignation only came after numerous Cabinet ministers called for his departure, finally rendering his attempts to remain in charge untenable.
I recently spoke by phone with David Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge University, about Johnson’s legacy and what comes next for the Tory Party. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Johnson may have permanently altered British politics, what distinguished his style of populism, and the Labour Party’s continuing difficulties.
No one in America would dispute that Trump changed American politics. Do you think Boris Johnson has changed British politics?
He has changed it in two obvious ways. The first is that all of this is still Brexit playing itself out, and there almost certainly would’ve been no Brexit without Boris Johnson. People who look back on it now tend to think that the key moment in the Brexit campaign was when Johnson came out for Leave, and that British politics has not been the same since.
The other thing, which is closer, I suppose, to some of what Trump has done, is that Johnson has pushed the limits of what people think is permissible further than anyone has in modern British politics. There were a lot of conventions he tested, and most of them held. But the unanswered question is the extent to which that’s created a precedent, and his successors will continue to test them. Compared even to Theresa May before him, the Johnson premiership felt like it was much more willing to see how far it was possible to go before the rules kicked in, and it turned out it was further than anyone thought.
In a way, the norm he pushed hardest on—and it is worth adding here that some of this was foreshadowed by Jeremy Corbyn during his time as the head of the Labour Party—was the idea that Parliament and parliamentary government is the be all and end all of British politics. And Johnson right till the end was trying to make a case that a popular mandate, Brexit, and then a general election which he won by saying he would get Brexit done, somehow, for want of a better word, trumped some of the claims of Parliament.
He would fall back on the idea that a Prime Minister has an obligation and a kind of set of rights that derived from the number of people who voted for him in a general election. And that simply pushes against most of the ways that British politics work. He tried to bypass his parliamentary party. He tried to claim that he could govern without many of them, in the name of the people. It is a form of populism. In the end, it wasn’t enough to sustain him, but he pushed it further than anyone else had.
When you said that his undoing was about Brexit, or the consequence of Brexit, what did you mean?
I don’t think his undoing was a consequence of Brexit. His premiership happened because of Brexit, and the consequences of Brexit will long outlast him. I think his undoing was him. In the end, he couldn’t put together a government. He lost the ability to persuade enough people in his party and in Parliament to support him.
A year ago, he was fine. A year ago, he was doing that kind of politics, and he still had the support of his party, and there was no reason to think he wouldn’t potentially be Prime Minister for ten years. It’s not that in the last year the consequences of Brexit have finished him off. What destroyed him was his inability to get people in his government willing to go out and lie on his behalf day after day. I mean, in the end, what destroyed him over the last week is the fact that too many people in his Cabinet had simply got sick of saying things which turned out the next day not to be true.
When you talk about this new type of politics that he was practicing, shaped by Brexit, I assume you mean some sort of version of a Conservative Party that is perhaps more appealing to working-class voters in formerly Labour-held constituencies, and perhaps a Conservative Party more willing to spend money. Where does that type of politics stand now within the party?
I meant two things. I meant that—but I also meant the politics that sets a kind of national popular majority against Parliament. The brute fact of British politics, even now, is that if members of the Parliament were polled on the basis of their personal opinion, the majority of them would say Brexit was a very bad idea. The Parliament that existed between 2016 and 2019 was, on the whole, massively against Brexit, trying to represent a population that voted for it. And Johnson was the one who broke the deadlock by essentially saying, “I’m going to be on the side of the people and Parliament can go to hell if it needs to.” So there’s that kind of politics, and I think that kind of politics appeals a lot to some members of the Conservative Party, who see it as a way of cutting through what they feel is the liberal establishment and so on.
It is quite Trumpish—the people against the establishment. And then there’s the other thing that goes with it, which is that the price of that kind of politics is appealing to non-traditional conservatives, and to not traditionally conservative voters, with a bigger state agenda with possibly more public spending. Many people in the Conservative Party are uncomfortable with that. They’re probably more uncomfortable with that than with more majoritarian populist politics, and the leadership election to succeed Johnson is partly going to be played out on that territory.
Maybe all of the people vying to replace Johnson, apart from Rishi Sunak, are talking about a more traditional tax-cutting agenda. They think he went too far pandering to this new base of support. But most of them, at the same time, are still speaking about the people against the élites. So, that part of Johnson’s legacy will remain. The big-state stuff is hard to sustain, but what matters is how they’re going to square that circle. How are you going to be the spokesperson for a majoritarian Brexit politics at the same time as running a small-state government? No one’s got an answer for that.
Just to go back to the Trump comparison you made—it strikes me that there’s one huge difference, which is that Trump’s project was always a minority one. He never won a plurality. He never had good approval ratings. Johnson did win a huge majority in Parliament. He was on the winning side of the Brexit referendum, which won fifty-two per cent of the vote, and for a while he was legitimately popular. We probably think the same thing about Brexit and about Johnson, but it does seem to be a type of populism where you’re wielding majorities against democratic institutions.