(Informed Comment) – After only six weeks in office, Johnson’s grand plan to leave the European Union with or without a deal by 31 October has collapsed like a pack of cards and, instead, he may have the shortest term as prime minister in British history. So, unlike the United States, the cause of right wing populism seems to have floundered in the United Kingdom, in the same way that it did in Italy and France.
On 23 July 2019, the blond, rumbustious, free-wheeling Brexiteer Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, known to all as Boris, was elected Britain’s 55th Prime Minister (77th if one counts the terms that different prime ministers served). On the same day, speaking to high school students in Washington, President Trump said: “We have a really good man who’s going to be the prime minister of the UK now, Boris Johnson. Good man. He’s tough, and he’s smart. They call him Britain’s Trump and people are saying that’s a good thing. They like me over there, and that’s what they wanted. That’s what they need. He’ll get it done. Boris is good, he’s going to do a good job….”
Already during his state visit to Britain in early June, in an inappropriate intervention in Britain’s domestic politics, Trump had made it clear that he favored Boris Johnson as prime minister. Meanwhile, he had denounced the then Prime Minister Theresa May who had arranged his state visit as “foolish” in her handling of Brexit. In a tweet, Trump wrote: “I told @theresa may how to do that deal, but she went her own foolish way-was unable to get it done. A disaster!”
Although many people in Britain too regard Johnson as a British Trump, there are some marked differences as well as similarities between them.
Like Trump, Johnson was born in New York to wealthy English parents, when his father was studying economics at Columbia University. Boris held dual British and US nationality.
Johnson’s paternal great-grandfather was a Muslim, Circassian-Turkish journalist Ali Kemal, and his mother is the granddaughter of Elias Avery Lowe who was a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States. Johnson has described himself as a “one-man melting pot”, with Muslim, Jewish and Christian grandparents. He abandoned his mother’s Catholicism and became an Anglican.
Johnson went to the exclusive and expensive Eton College and then to Balliol College, Oxford, to study classics. He is in the habit of dropping some Latin or Greek sentences in his speeches. In 1986, he was elected President of the prestigious Oxford Union, something that improved his oratorical qualities. Johnson had a privileged childhood, and his earliest recorded ambition was to be “world king”, but for the time being he has to content himself with being the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
After graduation, Johnson spent a number of years as a journalist, including as a columnist for the Times and the Daily Telegraph and finally as editor of The Spectator that is often seen a step on the ladder to high office in the Conservative Party. In 1989 Johnson was appointed to the Daily Telegraph’s Brussel’s bureau to report on the European Commission. During his five years in that post, he developed a very strong dislike for the EU venture and his well-written but very critical articles played a major role in discrediting the Commission to British readers.
He witnessed the changes that took place in the European Union after the end of the Cold War. He wrote: “It was a wonderful time to be there. The Berlin War fell and the French and Germans had to decide how they were going to respond to this event, and what was Europe going to become, and there was this fantastic pressure to create a single polity, to create an answer to the historic German problem, and this produced the most fantastic strains in the Conservative Party, so everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this I suppose rather weird sense of power.”
After his stint at journalism, he entered politics and in 2001 he won the safe Conservative seat in Henley on Thames. He was re-elected with a much bigger majority in 2005, but in 2007 he resigned his seat to run as the mayor of London. He defeated the widely popular leftist incumbent Ken Livingstone and served as mayor for eight years, organizing the London Olympics.
In 2014 he sought selection as the Conservative candidate and won Uxbridge and South Ruislip at the 2015 general election. When Prime Minister David Cameron announced the referendum on the EU membership, Cameron led the Brexit campaign against Cameron’s policies.
In response to a comment by President Barack Obama that Britain should remain in the EU, in an article in The Sun Johnson wrote that Obama’s views might have been shaped by an “ancestral dislike” of Britain owing to his “Part-Kenyan” background.
While serving as British foreign secretary in Theresa May’s cabinet, Johnson resigned his post due to the agreement that May had reached with the EU for an orderly departure and again led the campaign for a hard Brexit. As the result of the resignation of a number of her key ministers, May was forced to resign and Johnson was elected Prime Minister by two-thirds of the votes of the members of the Conservative Party.
Unlike Trump’s administration, Johnson’s cabinet is multi-ethnic, and three of four great offices of the state are now held by children of immigrants. Dominic Raab, foreign secretary and deputy prime minister, is the son of a Jewish father who came to Britain from Czechoslovakia in 1938. Unlike most of the hard right in the Conservative Party, Raab began his career working as an international lawyer and even spent a stint at the human rights organization Liberty. He spent a summer in 1998 working at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
Sajid Javid, the chancellor of exchequer, is the son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants. His father worked as a bus driver, and his mother who grew up in a small village in Pakistan did not speak English. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, was born to Gujarati parents who emigrated to UK from Uganda in the 1960s.
Johnson’s cabinet shares a very strong pro-Israeli stance with the Trump administration. After Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, Johnson said that it represented a “moment of opportunity” for peace. In June 2018, Johnson accused the UNHRC of focusing disproportionately on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
Other members of his cabinet also share his pro-Israeli proclivities. Despite his short association with Palestinians, Dominic Raab has been a steadfast supporter of the state of Israel. In a number of articles, he condemned UN recognition of a Palestinian state. In a 2010 blog post, he defended the Israeli forces’ attack on the Mavi Marmara ship attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, an incident in which 10 pro-Palestinian activists were killed.
With regard to Saudi Arabia, Raab urged the UK not to allow the gruesome murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October last year to undermine the UK’s relationship with Riyadh. He told the BBC: “We are not throwing our hands in the air and terminating the relationship with Saudi Arabia, not just because of the huge number of British jobs that depend on it but also because if you exert influence over your partners you need to be able to talk to them.”
The new Home Secretary Priti Patel is also a staunch supporter of Israel. She was forced out of Theresa May’s cabinet in 2017 for holding many unofficial meetings with Israeli government officials while on a “private holiday”, without telling the Foreign Office. She was accompanied by Lord Polak, honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel.
As International Development’s secretary, she was critical of the UK’s decision to invest the Department’s funds to support the Palestinian territories. In October 2016, Patel ordered a review of the funding procedure, freezing approximately a third of Britain’s aid to the Palestinians during the review. During her visit to Israel, she had recommended that the Department for International Development should give money to field hospitals run by the Israeli army in the Golan Heights.
Sajid Javid too has not hidden his admiration for Israel. In a meeting of the Conservative Friends of Israel, he proclaimed: “I am a proud, British-born Muslim, and I love my country more than any other place on earth,” but he added that if he had to live anywhere in the Middle East it would be Israel.
He has also taken a heavy hand against Israel’s enemies. In February 2019, he added the political wing of Hezbollah to the UK’s terror list, along with its already outlawed military wing, a policy close to the hearts of the members of the Trump administration.
Gavin Williamson, the new education secretary, served as defense secretary in May’s cabinet. However, in an unprecedented move, he was sacked by May after allegedly “compelling evidence” came to light that he had leaked details of a National Security Council meeting to the press regarding Huawei. He has been one of the most overtly hawkish ministers in recent history. In 2018 he described the UK as having become “too timid” following its wars in the Middle East, and praised “properly considered” military intervention. In view of his earlier dismissal, his appointment as education secretary in Johnson’s cabinet has raised many eyebrows.
After his election by fewer than 100,000 members of the Conservative Party, Johnson formed the most right-wing government in recent British history. One of the conditions of the appointments of his new ministers was that they had to pledge their adherence to Brexit. Having formed a loyal and cohesive cabinet, Johnson got to work to achieve his aim of implementing Brexit. In his first speech in front of the steps of 10 Downing Street he pledged that he would get Britain out of the EU “deal or no deal, do or die” by 31 October.
In order to achieve this aim in the face of a parliament that had repeatedly rejected a no-deal Brexit, Johnson decided to prorogue (a fancy term for close or suspend) the parliament for five weeks shortly after it came back from the summer recess, in order to give little time for the opposition parties to oppose his plans. He decreed that the parliament would meet for a few days before it closed down again for five weeks for party conferences and for the start of a new session of the parliament.
In order to justify the parliament’s suspension, he said that the Queens Speech announcing the programs of the new government that is normally held in November would be brought forward to 14 October. Normally, the parliament debates the new government’s programs for a few days, and then there would be very little time to debate Brexit and pass legislation, in effect forcing the country to leave the EU with no deal by the 31st October deadline.
His unusual and undemocratic suspension of parliament for five weeks united all the opposition parties. When they returned to the parliament on 3 September, opposition parties put forward a motion to take control of parliament in order to pass legislation preventing the government from leaving the EU with no deal. As the prime minister started to deliver his first speech in parliament one of the Conservative MPs moved from the government benches and joined the Liberal Democrats, depriving the government of the single majority that it enjoyed. Thus, all of a sudden, Johnson found that he was at the head of a minority government.
The motion to take control of parliament passed with a majority of 27 votes, and the subsequent motion to force the government to ask for an extension from the EU so that the government could not crash out with no deal on 31 October passed with a majority of 29 votes. Being annoyed by the defection of 21 Conservative MPs to the opposition and voting for the bill, Johnson took the whip away from them, in practice expelling 21 prominent MPs from the Conservative Party, thus further reducing his support in parliament.
The MPs who were sacked included Father of the House, a former Treasury Secretary Kenneth Clarke who has served as an MP since 1970, Sir Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson and a former defense minister who has been an MP since 1983, and many other prominent MPs. It is remarkable that the very popular leader of the Scottish Conservative Party Ruth Davidson who saved the party from extinction resigned in disgust. Three former prime ministers have come out strongly against Johnson, including former Conservative Prime Minister John Major who has taken Johnson to court for closing parliament. Maybe the most damaging of all was the resignation of his brother Jo Johnson, who had been appointed Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, who said that he would also stand down as an MP.
The bill approved by parliament requiring Johnson to get an extension to Bresixt was sent to the House of Lords to be debated. The government was hoping that Conservative peers would filibuster the debate and the bill would not be approved before the prorogation. Opposition MPs took their duvets to the House of Lords, saying that they would not leave until the bill was passed. Eventually, Conservative peers gave in and approved the bill, which should be sent to the Queen to be signed into law on Monday 9th September.
Boris Johnson has said that this would theoretically bind his hands and that he would not obey it. He said he would rather die in a ditch than ask for an extension. If he refuses to obey the law, he will plunge the country into a constitutional crisis. A former Attorney General has said that if he disobeys the law he will be taken to court and sent to jail.
Johnson has said that next week he will call for new elections, but according to the fixed-term parliament that was made into law by David Cameron he needs a two-third majority to have early elections, which is impossible for him to achieve. He has said that he would introduce a one-line bill trying to undo the fixed-term legislation, which would require a simple majority, but opposition parties have said that they will not vote for it until a no-deal Brexit is a thing of the past and until he has asked for an extension beyond 31 October.
So, for the time being, Britain’s Trump does not seem to have achieved his aim and has indeed faced the worst week imaginable. If he sticks to his word to refuse to ask for an extension he will have to resign, which will make his premiership the shortest in history.
However, new elections have to be held sooner or later and Johnson is trying to portray himself as being on the side of the people against parliament. With the split in the Conservative Party and a rising Brexit Party that will take some of the Conservative votes, it is unlikely that Johnson will succeed. British politics has to go through a number of other unexpected stages before we know the final outcome.
Bonus video added by Informed Comment:
Channel 4 News: “Could MPs take the PM to court to force Brexit delay?”