Where will the Conservative Party go after Boris Johnson?

Last week Boris Johnson announced he would step down 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 landslide election victory in 2019 and guided his country’s withdrawal from the European Union. Since then, he has been plagued by a constant series of scandals, often due to his own lies, and the violation of his own government’s policy. covid rules. His resignation only came after numerous Cabinet ministers called for him to leave, ultimately rendering his attempts to remain in charge untenable.

I recently spoke by phone with David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, about Johnson’s legacy and what comes next for the Conservative Party. During our chat, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Johnson was able to permanently alter British politics, what distinguished his style of populism, and the party’s continuing struggles. labor.

No one in America would dispute that Trump changed American policy. Do you think Boris Johnson changed British politics?

He changed it in two obvious ways. The first is that this is all still unfolding, and there would almost certainly have been no Brexit without Boris Johnson. People who look back now tend to think that the key moment in the Brexit campaign was when Johnson spoke out for leave, and that British politics hasn’t been the same since.

The other thing, which I guess is closer to what Trump has done, is that Johnson has pushed the boundaries of what people think is acceptable further than anyone in modern British politics. There were many conventions he tested, and most of them held. But the unanswered question is to what extent it set a precedent, and its successors will continue to test them. Compared even to Theresa May before him, Prime Minister Johnson felt much more willing to see how far it was possible to go before the rules took effect, and he turned out to be further than anyone thought.

What, precisely?

In a way, the norm he stressed the most – and it should be added here that some of this was foreshadowed by Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader of Labor – was the idea that Parliament and parliamentary government are the keystone. put an end to all British politics. And Johnson to the end tried to argue that a popular term, Brexit, and then a general election which he won saying he would make sure Brexit was done, one way or another. another, for lack of a better word, prevailed over some of Parliament’s assertions.

He would fall back on the idea that a prime minister has an obligation and some sort of set of rights that flow from the number of people who voted for him in a general election. And that just goes against most of the way British politics works. He tried to circumvent his parliamentary party. He tried to pretend he could rule without many of them, on behalf of the people. It is a form of populism. In the end, it wasn’t enough to sustain him, but he pushed him further than anyone else.

When you said his loss was related to Brexit, or the consequence of Brexit, what did you mean?

I don’t think his loss is a consequence of Brexit. His premiership happened because of Brexit, and the consequences of Brexit will long outlive him. I think his downfall was him. In the end, he was unable to 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 this 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 over the past year the aftermath of Brexit has finished him off. What destroyed him was his inability to convince members of his government to come out and lie in his name day after day. I mean, ultimately, what destroyed him over the last week was the fact that too many people in his firm were just tired of saying things that turned out to be wrong the next day.

When you say this new kind of politics he was practicing, shaped by Brexit, I assume you mean a sort of version of a Conservative party that is perhaps more appealing to working-class voters in the constituencies once held by Labour, and perhaps a Conservative Party more willing to spend the money. Where is this type of politics within the party?

I wanted to say two things. I meant that, but I also meant the politics that set up a kind of national popular majority against Parliament. The stark fact of British politics even now is that if Members of Parliament were questioned 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, overwhelmingly against Brexit, trying to represent a population that voted for it. And Johnson is the one who broke the deadlock by essentially saying, ‘I’m going to side with the people and Parliament can go to hell if it has to.’ So there is 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 to cut through what they see as the Liberal establishment and so on.

That’s pretty Trumpish – the people versus the establishment. And then there’s the other thing that goes with it is that the price of this kind of politics is attractive to non-traditional conservatives, and to non-traditionally conservative voters, with a bigger state agenda with can -be more public spending. A lot of people in the Conservative Party are uncomfortable with that. They are probably more uncomfortable with that than with more majoritarian populist politics, and the leadership election to succeed Johnson will partly be played out in that territory.

Perhaps everyone vying to replace Johnson except Rishi Sunak is talking about a more traditional tax-cutting agenda. They think he went too far in pandering to this new base of support. But most of them, at the same time, are still talking about the people against the elites. Thus, this part of Johnson’s legacy will remain. Big state stuff is hard to maintain, but what matters is how they’re going to square the circle. How are you going to be the mouthpiece of a majority Brexit policy while leading a small state government? Nobody has an answer to that.

Going back to the comparison you made with Trump, it seems to me that there is a huge difference, namely that Trump’s project has always been in the minority. He never won a plurality. He never had good approval ratings. Johnson won a huge majority in Parliament. He was on the winning side of the Brexit referendum, which won 52% of the vote, and for a time he was legitimately popular. We probably think the same about Brexit and Johnson, but it seems to be a type of populism where you wield majorities against democratic institutions.