Boris Johnson, describing himself as the ‘Hulk’, has borrowed from Trump’s playbook to ‘smash’ his Brexit policy through parliament. Too bad he’s only ‘incredible’ in a very literal sense.
Those who are bewildered by the current state of American politics need only look across the pond for a dismal reminder that it could be worse. Brexit is as torturous as ever, parliament was suspended, and the Supreme Court has deemed the government’s actions unlawful. Voices from both sides of the aisle are clamoring for the Prime Minister’s resignation. Mark Ruffalo has even felt it necessary to distance the Hulk from the mess.
The Brexit vote recently celebrated its third anniversary with the election of Boris Johnson, whose job history speaks to a sustained record of public deceit. Fired from The Times in 2002 for fabricating a quote, he became the Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph, where he is credited with popularizing the ‘euromyth’ brand of hack journalism which misleadingly caricatured the EU as a banana-straightening bureaucracy. Claims made by the Leave campaign about health spending under Johnson have also been proven false. He now stands accused of misinforming the Queen, lying about his finances, and in perhaps the most autosatirical twist of all, was recently filmed by news cameras telling the father of a sick newborn that there was no press at his hospital visit.
It is little wonder that the U.S. President refers to Johnson as ‘Britain Trump’ (sic). Trump’s playbook is to inoculate himself against scrutiny by tweeting out small daily doses of outrage. A scant glance at Johnson’s Telegraph columns—which have referred to the ‘watermelon smiles’ of black people as well as ‘piccaninnies’—attests to his similarly inflammatory strategy. When he compared women in burqas to ‘letterboxes’ in August 2018, watchgroup Tell Mama recorded a 375 percent spike in anti-Muslim incidents in the week that followed. Most of the charges regularly levelled at Trump—compulsive lying, racist stereotyping, abuse of office, to name a few—can be directed at Johnson in equal measure.
For one thing, they both share an outright hostility to dissent. Trump has recently moved onto his fourth national security adviser (at time of writing), and regularly tweets incendiary personal attacks against his critics. Johnson expelled 21 Conservative MPs—including Winston Churchill’s grandson—for voting against his hardline Brexit policy, and has prorogued parliament to avoid democratic review.
But where Trump, however polarizing, generally retains the approval of his party, Johnson is hemorrhaging support. Once famous for vilifying the so-called ‘unelected bureaucrats’ of Brussels, Johnson has now become one. He has lost his parliamentary majority, and his doubtful mandate (99.86 percent of the UK didn’t have a say on him becoming Prime Minister) is evaporating. Now, in an unprecedented development, the Supreme Court has ruled that his government broke the law by proroguing parliament. So why can’t ‘Britain Trump’ get it right?
The ramifications of Brexit—whatever the outcome—are more permanent than Trumpism is equipped to deal with. With or without a deal, short-term patriotic gratification is not a viable strategy for dealing with the insecurities of a new trade position. A raft of blue passports will not fix broken medical supply chains, and the commemorative Brexit 50 pence coin will not mend the economy. Even the softest of Brexits is likely to trigger a groundswell of support for a new Scottish independence referendum, having only rejected the option by 10 percent before the majority voted to Remain in 2016.
Brexit has shifted the axis of political debate beyond recognition. According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, only 8% of Britons identify very strongly with any political party. By contrast, 40 percent identify very strongly with a stance on Brexit—whether it be Remain or Leave. Debate over the EU has dwarfed almost every other matter of policy, and party loyalty has been roundly displaced by Brexit allegiance.
The U.K. is deeply riven between two competing models of identity that reinforce each other’s grievances. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ was Theresa May’s helpful contribution, and since then, the government has pursued a fractally-retentive policy which stubbornly repeats itself at every level of scrutiny, burying its definition just beyond the vanishing point of detail.
America looks forward to its elections with star-spangled optimism for a clear choice, but British parties are in a state of flux, unable even to sustain their own platforms from one week to the next. Two of the world’s most prosperous nations, with among the longest democratic traditions, are facing a crisis of public confidence in governmental process. But aping Trump’s strategy to consolidate domestic support has proven a failure for Johnson, and one that will have a long-lasting impact.
Roddy Howland-Jackson is a research associate at Lexington Institute completing his studies at Oxford University.
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