Boris Johnson: From the People’s Populist to a Potential Political Pariah.


Boris Johnson: From the People’s Populist to a Potential Political Pariah.

Our PhD student, Jo Rothery surveys the rapid fall from grace of Boris Johnson.

In the general election of December 2019, Boris Johnson won a large majority of 80 seats. His populist style Conservative party won more working-class voters than middle class for the first time . Labour lost many of its heartland seats in the North, Midlands and Wales and the political landscape was transformed. Yet recent events have led to a vote of no confidence in Johnson. He is now even at risk of becoming a “Conservative Corbyn” according to pollster James Johnson. So what has caused this reversal of Johnson’s populist appeal?

Johnson’s brand of populism was based on divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. This is key in populist theory which focuses on the ordinary people’s struggle against the dominant elite. It was encapsulated in the Conservative policy of “Get Brexit Done” which highlighted how the establishment in parliament were preventing the will of the people by refusing to pass Brexit legislation. Populism is successful when there is a charismatic leader who is able to mobilise support at a time of great change and crisis . Johnson was able to do this successfully by gaining support from those who were reacting against the cultural and political change of modern times: older voters with less educational qualifications who were anti-immigration, socially conservative and lacked trust in both global and national governance.  

Johnson has managed to win support from the coalition of his traditional voter base and new working-class supporters during his time in power. In May 2020 and at the height of the covid pandemic, 66% of people felt he was doing well as Prime Minister. In May 2022, however, this fell to just 26%, with 68% of people feeling he was doing badly. Despite feelings from some in the Conservative party that the war with Ukraine would aid the Prime Minister’s faltering popularity, his position worsened.

One of the key reasons for this is partygate. Johnson has been viewed as a rule breaker previously in order to “Get Brexit Done”. His proroguing of parliament in September 2019 meant that Brexit legislation had a limited amount of time to be scrutinised.  Yet when this was ruled unlawful later in September, the Conservatives still had a lead of 12% over Labour,  albeit under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The rule breaking of partygate has, in contrast, translated into a decline in Johnson’s popularity. Some people believe that he has lied, and that this makes him a far less credible leader. Polling carried out in April this year reflects this with 57% to 61% of all voters thinking he should resign over partygate.

Furthermore, the cost-of-living crisis and a lack of effective policy initiatives are also making voters question Johnson’s ability to govern.  The introduction of the windfall tax on energy companies by the Conservatives in May this year followed a vote in the Commons proposed by Labour which the Conservatives did not support.  The policy was seen by some as merely a cynical move to take attention away from the government’s troubles over partygate.  Other Conservative MPs have also seen a decline in support with the public. Rishi Sunak for example, is now considered to be out of touch with real people for various reasons. Johnson continues to announce policies that relate to the past in order to win support such as a return to the use of imperial measures. There is even talk that the government is open to the idea of lifting the current ban on the opening of new grammar schools. Yet these do little to help those who are feeling the current economic squeeze.

Part of the problem for Johnson is that Brexit is now done but it has not been as successful as some voters thought it would be. In a recent poll only 37%  of people in hindsight thought that leaving the EU was right, compared to 49% who felt it was wrong. This is a drop of 10% in those who felt it was right from the end of August 2016. Brexit has also pushed questions over the future of the union higher up the political agenda:  Nicola Sturgeon is now preparing for a second independence referendum in Scotland and there is talk of changing the Northern Ireland protocol. This threatens peace in the country and risks a potential trade war with the EU just as the cost-of-living crisis begins to bite.

With by elections looming in the Conservative seats of Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, polling is not looking favourable for Johnson and his party. In Wakefield, a ‘Red Wall’ seat won by the Conservatives in the 2019 general election, Labour are 20% ahead of the Tories. The Conservatives are also expecting to lose Tiverton and Honiton. It appears that Tory support in both the ‘Red Wall’ and ‘Blue Wall’ are crumbling.

As Johnson faces a vote of no confidence from his parliamentary party today, the people’s populist now looks weaker than was previously imaginable. Whilst arriving at the Queen’s Jubilee service, the Prime Minister was booed  showing that even some royalist supporters are turning on him. When populists get into power, they run the real risk of looking like they have just become part of the establishment they promised to fight against. Brexit is done and there appears to be no unifying populist policies up the sleeve of the Conservatives. People no longer believe Johnson is on their side and no longer trust him. He has gone from being the people’s populist to a potential political pariah for the Conservative party.  

Jo Rothery is a PhD student in Politics and International Relations. Her working title is ‘Progressive Nationalism? The Territorialisation of the Labour Party’. The research examines how evolving sub-state nationalism has impacted on Labour Party politics in England, Scotland and Wales; voters’ perceptions of Labour’s nationalist credentials in the sub-state territories; how the Labour Parties in each nation have adapted to multi-level governance and what the changing constitution means for future of the Labour Party.

Image credit:Loco Steve, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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