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Boris Johnson is Gone for Good, but His Brand of Empty Populism is Still Very Much Alive

In the wake of this week’s Covid interrogation, any residual debate about Boris Johnson’s career in politics is settled. He will never come back.

Hugo Keith KC, counsel to the Covid inquiry, exposed the many failures of the former British prime minister with careful questioning. During the pandemic, Johnson was negligent, lazy and systematically misled the public, while repeatedly boasting about imaginary achievements. Above all, he failed to treat the pandemic seriously, missing the first five Cobra meetings. The official judgment on his record will be devastating.

This means that Johnson’s current prospects contain echoes of Harold Davidson, the infamous and storied Norfolk vicar from the 1930s, who was defrocked after being convicted of immorality by a church court. Short of funds, Davidson adopted a second career as a Blackpool showman before being mauled to death by a lion in Skegness.

A grisly half-life likewise awaits Johnson, involving TV chatshows, after-dinner speeches, newspaper columns and doubtless other forms of public humiliation in the company of an ever-diminishing group of sycophants.

For the time being, the Murdoch, Associated and Telegraph groups continue to humour Johnson. This touching loyalty to their one-time darling from normally ruthless Fleet Street editors is entirely out of character. It is also expensive. The Daily Mail reportedly pays the former prime minister not far short of £1m a year for a weekly column that brings the paper into disrepute, represents rotten value for money, and puts off readers.

So we can be sure that in the wake of the Covid inquiry, Johnson faces a future as a pariah. But there is a larger question: is the movement he represented finished?

Bear in mind that Johnson is not simply a British phenomenon. His empty but dangerous populism is part of a global trend. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy was the prototype, but others have followed. Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, most recently Giorgia Meloni in Italy and Javier Milei in Argentina. All have exploited the international rebellion against liberal democracy, and sought to replace it with their own domestic versions of ultra-nationalism.

The member of this unappetising coterie who Johnson most resembles is Donald Trump. Like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Johnson and Trump should be understood as a joint transatlantic phenomenon. Whereas Thatcher and Reagan represented the free world coming together to defeat Soviet communism, Trump and Johnson were both cleverly articulated manifestations of the limitless triviality of contemporary public discourse.

They are not so much politicians as exotic creations of celebrity media culture. They rose by spotting early on that in the early decades of the 21st century, fact and fiction had merged in contemporary discourse. The media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who long ago interpreted politics as a form of show business and newspapers as a branch of the entertainment industry, sponsored them both.

The coronavirus pandemic exploded this method of government. Angela Merkel noted in a speech to the European parliament in July 2020: “This pandemic cannot be fought with lies and disinformation, and neither can it with hatred and agitation. Fact-denying populism is being shown its limits. In a democracy, facts and transparency are needed.”

Johnson and Trump disagreed. Though gifted entertainers, they completely lacked the moral seriousness to cope with a public health catastrophe such as Covid.

To be fair, Johnson did not emulate Trump by describing coronavirus as a “hoax” or suggesting people inject themselves with bleach. But this last week has exposed Johnson’s lies, evasions and chilling inhumanity. The sly humour and low tricks that entertained voters in his prime no longer seem like innocent fun, but cold-blooded and macabre.

Yet the structural circumstances that enabled Johnson still exist. He emerged out of the growing abyss between a morally bankrupt political system and the rest of us, mirrored in an exponentially growing gulf between a new class of super-rich and increasingly impoverished voters. British politics has become a playground for hedge fund managers, property developers and foreign oligarchs, with Johnson the public manifestation of their power and influence.

As prime minister he allowed politics to convert into a system for pillaging state institutions. This explains a phenomenon that has not yet been investigated by the Covid inquiry: the large number of Tory donors who won government contracts in irregular circumstances.

Parallel with the rise of the super-rich we have experienced the rise of a feral media class. Under Johnson, many newspapers ceased to hold the government to account. Instead, they dedicated immense resources of time and effort to the production, dissemination and normalisation of the lies and fabrications produced by the Johnson political machine.

It is impossible to understand the mismanagement of the Covid pandemic without an analysis of the depth and scale of the intimacy between media and politics.

Johnson led a government of journalists for journalists. To give one example, newspapers badly needed people to return to the workplace so they could buy newspapers and read them on the train. Meanwhile, work byBrian Cathcart in the Byline Times has exposed that Johnson’s government channelled millions of pounds to newspapers as the pandemic progressed. The government has refused to release the breakdown of this “all in, all together” spending, a scheme to buy advertising space for Covid messaging. Perhaps it helps to explain why so many titles allowed themselves to become cheerleaders for the Tory leader.

Traditionally, British government has been conducted with integrity at times of crisis. This did not happen during Covid. Baroness Hallett’s Covid inquiry needs to explain what went so wrong with government at the highest level, and advocate solutions. Her verdict will help to determine whether the Johnson premiership was a freak event that will never be repeated, or merely a prototype for something much nastier and even more sinister. This week’s Tory split over migration, with Suella Braverman launching her bid to become the leader of a British equivalent of France’s National Rally or Germany’s AfD, provides a glimpse of the scale of the challenge to liberal democracy that may lie ahead.

Source: The Guardian