“You need a populist, to beat a populist,” was the argument made by an anonymous Cabinet Minister in favour of Boris Johnson leading a populist Conservative party into the next general election. But is this really the direction the Conservative party should be taking? According to James Forsyth of The Spectator some Tory donors think it is; they argue that in order to avoid Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn, a Conservative populist is needed to beat a socialist one. The thinking is that Corbyn has been able to generate mass appeal due to his “man of the people” shtick and his ability to connect with the electorate on an emotional level, allowing him to position himself as a champion of the masses fighting valiantly “for the many, not the few”. Proponents of Boris Johnson as the populist counter to Corbyn argue that the Foreign Secretary’s ample doses of humour, charisma and rapport would be the antidote to Corbyn’s populism. Supporters of this idea point to his electoral success as mayor of London when running against Ken Livingston (who, like Corbyn, was a member of the hard-left Bennite wing of the Labour party) as an example of how he could lead a populist Conservative charge against Corbyn’s Labour Party.
However, as seemingly well-thought through as this strategy is, proponents of a populist-conservative alliance led by Boris Johnson do not really seem to understand what populism is. Not only do you have to have to energise the public, you have to appear to be leading the people on a crusade against the elite: be it political, media or cultural elites. Trump’s “draining of the swamp”, his attacks on the media and Hollywood are all perfect examples of this. Boris Johnson does energise the electorate, he is popular and is able to debate and draws the attention of the media, but he is not a populist; he does not mobilise the masses against British elites. Furthermore, no matter how hard you may try, an old Etonian Bullingdon Club boy will never be taken seriously when attempting to lead a charge against “the elite”.
This is not a criticism of Boris Johnson, far from it, he is neither able nor should he seek to lead a populist Conservative party – because the principles of conservatism are not compatible with populism. At its core, populism of all stripes is about saying “we, the majority of the people are being screwed over, and if you put me into power I’m going to fight this oppressors on ‘our’ behalf”. It is fundamentally collectivist: about us and them and is the antithesis of what Conservatism stands for; populism seeks to empower the state and the collective, not protect the individual. Therefore, it has a stifling effect on liberty and free enterprise by giving the state a greater mandate to intervene in the lives of their citizens for the benefit of “the people”. We see this playing out in Trump’s America with his pursuit of economic protectionism, his continuation of civil asset forfeiture and threats to revoke the licenses of media organizations he doesn’t like. However, the way populists actually seek to empathise and at least pretend to understand what the electorate wants from government is positive, and I imagine it may be the aspect of populism which the anonymous Cabinet Minister had in mind when talking up Boris Johnson. However, the core collectivist component of populism means it runs directly contrary to the principles of Conservativism.
It’s pretty easy to say what the Conservatives shouldn’t be doing, but perhaps more importantly, what do I suggest should be their plan to win the next election? With the degree of uncertainty about who will actually be leading the Tories into the next election it’s hard to make any specific recommendations. If it is Theresa May (highly unlikely), Boris Johnson, David Davis or any of the numerous other contenders, each would bring their own style, ideology and ideas to the leadership of the party. I would recommend however that the vison they offer is optimistic and looks to the future beyond Brexit and most importantly stays true to the values that an embrace of populism would abandon; liberty, individualism and free enterprise. This means coming up with bold solutions to problems like the housing crisis, student debt and social care that keep the core votes interests in mind but also offer something new, exciting and rooted in Conservative values.