Boris: The Plastic Populist | Mario Laghos
For those who take an interest in public opinion, the lockdown has been disastrous. Anyone who wants a holistic view of the zeitgeist could in ordinary times collate it across pubs, clubs, coffee shops, at the school gates, in the workplace and elsewhere. But now we are all consigned to our lockdown pods, having dutifully assumed our new role as consumer-workers, we are more reliant than ever on the swamp of social media to culture our understanding of the public mood. That being the case it’s hard to ignore the latest and greatest histrionic guff emerging from the Twitterati, who in the wake of Trump melting down to reveal the visage of a mad brain in a jar dripping in orange wax, have decided that their new meme is to put the British PM side by side with populists in order to dunk on him.
Piers Morgan recently proffered an example of this new trend, posting a picture of Boris Johnson glad-handing Trump at a NATO summit, captioned thusly: ‘Two countries led by populist blustering bullsh*tters who never took it [COVID-19] seriously enough & whose handling of the crisis has been absolutely appalling from start to finish’. A profound observation if ever there was one. If you have ever had the pleasure of perusing Corbyn-supporting Facebook groups, as opposed to something more fulfilling, like collecting twigs, you’ll already be familiar with this type of comparison since its from such places that the trend emerged. Recently I witnessed a specimen which placed the Prime Minister alongside Nazi collaborator William Joyce, accompanied by elucidating parallels such as ‘Both born in New York’. Of course, the point of all this nonsense is to use the stench of a Trump, Donald Snr. typically, or some other populist to score petty points against the Prime Minister.
Boris undoubtedly came on strong to populism in the wake of his ascension to the leadership of the Conservative party. I suppose he can’t be too miffed that having flirted so strongly with populism, only to drop it like a stone, that its lovers are scorned. And the lovers are numerous on the left, amongst a particular class of the virtual commentariat who are desperate for a right-wing populist to define themselves against. Unfortunately for them, there is a supply side problem, in the UK at least. Their coping mechanism is to pretend the break up never happened and carry on as things were before, as though infected by a viral form of cognitive dissonance.
But who can blame them when the Prime Minister was such a promising candidate? He prorogued parliament and was subsequently found to have ‘acted unlawfully’ in so doing. That’s a big check mark against undermining the rule of law and democratic institutions. He sacked a bunch of his own MPs for continually forgetting the result of the Brexit referendum – check! Mauritius started moaning about British possession of the Chagos Archipelago and he told them that Britain would surrender those islands only when the protoplasmic dust of a thousand suns collides with the imprecating thwack of a supernova prompting the imperturbation of the 3rd dimension – check! He didn’t actually say that, but he did stand fast on the question of British sovereignty over the Archipelago, which is good enough.
Since the election things have changed. The same kidnapper who replaced Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn with a Remainiac hostage clone seems to have done a number on Boris too. And no one seems to have noticed. I recall a Boris who banged on about the border to a fault. Taking back control of our borders was the Boris battle cry nary a year ago – and yet his Premiership has so far been marked by record number of illegal migrants crossing the Chanel. Over 8000 arrived in 2020, a 400% increase on the previous year.
This was the man who was supposed to bring balance to the border force, not destroy it, and yet he has assumed a lackadaisical posture as we watched our borders dissolve in slow motion. But illegal migration is just the tip of the iceberg, because legal migration in 2020 was literally record breaking. It’s taken an entire year of being subject to the ravages of a pandemic for the PM to require that travellers test negative for Covid before entering the UK. I’m sure some expert advised that border closures would not impact the spread of the virus – a conclusion only a supremely intelligent individual could arrive at – and that this has informed the PM’s thinking. And here was me thinking we’d had enough of experts.
When BLM went out into the streets to enact a cultural revolution, Boris remained eerily silent. He belatedly emerged as the smoke was clearing and the battle done, to pen an article in the Telegraph in which he scrawled a corpse like defence of British heritage. Churchill was defaced, Colston thrown into the harbour, and the police were given a hiding, and yet the allegedly populist PM could be neither seen nor heard. The man who had campaigned alongside Gisela Stuart on a pro-state aid platform swiftly turned on his heels once was over the finish line. In February he delivered a speech in Greenwich condemning economic populism and characterised anti-COVID-19 measures as an overreaction to the virus which has since claimed over 80,000 British lives.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, Boris doubled down on his free market fetish in a November address to the UN, in which he complained of the UK’s inability to produce PPE at the onset of the pandemic, while simultaneously paying homage to market forces and rejecting the idea of onshoring. When it came to Brexit, no one ever believed he would walk away without a deal. Boris isn’t a populist, and he doesn’t want to be one either. He has reverted to type on the economy, fled the field on questions of culture, and gone into hibernation on the issue of border control. I’m sure that when the next election comes Boris will again show a bit of leg and reveal a garter while shouting about sovereignty, but if this comes after a 5-year tenure of overseeing record levels of immigration, breakdowns in law and order, and financial services focused fiscal policy, then who on earth will believe him? Perhaps it’s worth remembering the wisdom of George W. Bush: Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.