Johnson’s obscene behaviour this week confirms the arrival of Trumpian Britain

The destination may be more dangerous than we yet understand

September 27, 2019
Photo: House of Commons/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: House of Commons/PA Wire/PA Images

Sometimes political events prove so dangerous and shocking that we are compelled, almost through self-preservation, to focus on the immediate developments, and understand only much later how much has been irrecoverably broken and lost. This was such a week.

On Tuesday the highest court in the land found that the prime minister had abused his power, misled parliament, and broken the law. It upheld the earlier verdict of the Scottish judges, who found that the PM had effectively lied to the Queen. If Boris Johnson had a shred of decency, integrity or responsibility, he would have resigned on the spot. Such an act would have been expected and demanded of any other PM in modern history even by their own party. Johnson is not such a man.

The PM did not apologise. He did not show humility. He instead doubled down. Johnson’s Commons appearance on Wednesday evening delivered the most repulsive parliamentary spectacle this country has seen in our lifetimes. The prime minister wailed that parliament was betraying the people. He declared it should “stand aside.” He used the phrase “surrender act” no fewer than 15 times. When one MP invoked the memory of her friend Jo Cox and pleaded with the PM, for her colleagues' safety and her own, to moderate his language, he responded that her complaint was “humbug.” Indeed, he tumbled to a further nadir by opining that MPs could honour Cox’s memory by “getting Brexit done.” It was a gleeful festival of cruelty. People left the chamber in tears. Here was a group of MPs begging our country’s leader to temper his rhetoric, not as a political opponent but as a human being, and he jeered in their faces.

This was nothing to do with trade, or free movement, or sovereignty. It wasn’t about fishing quotas or the EU budget or the bureaucrats in the European Commission. Brexit was not supposed to be like this. Nobody voted for this. How, in the name of Britain, did we get here?

First we look at the language. History shows that before hardline demagogues take control of the people’s will, they must first take control of the people’s lexicon. Johnson’s calm repetition of the word “surrender” was no mere attempt at ridicule. He didn’t use it to make a joke. It was, rather, a deliberate, concerted and explicit effort not simply to smear his opponents but to delegitimise them.

It is not really about the word itself, but the context in which it was used. Johnson is attempting to reframe language and normalise that reframing. Such an endeavour seeks to radicalise people, whipping up a righteous popular fury that we have somehow “surrendered” to our historic enemies and rivals across the Channel by attempting to save jobs and medicine supplies. The British government is implicitly likening MPs to traitors in an imaginary war with our closest allies.

This is not just a question of abstract morality but people’s safety. Johnson’s language does not occur in a vacuum. It matters. It filters through. And it has consequences. Johnson must know this. He knows that Cox’s murderer cried “Britain first” as he attacked her. He knows that MPs are receiving floods of threats and abuse. He knows that the words “surrender” and “betrayal” wave a match over a public stage doused with fuel. It is simply that he doesn’t care.

It is here that Johnson and Dominic Cummings reveal themselves. The PM declared that “the best way to ensure that every parliamentarian is properly safe... is to get Brexit done.” Cummings went a step further when an MP complained about a death threat and he simply told him to support a deal. Never mind that there is currently no Brexit deal to approve even if MPs wanted to. It is beyond all limits of obscenity that the prime minister and his chief of staff should use MPs’ personal safety as a tool of blackmail or bargaining chip.

But this is where we come to the figure of Johnson himself. Some MPs genuinely care about what they do. Others are merely entertained by it. The idea that our PM might work for any sense of the common good is a fiction. A lifetime of profound entitlement has delivered him nothing but reward. Now, having attained his lifelong goal of becoming prime minister, he fixes his sights on the nationalist glory he feels he deserves.

And yet Johnson could do none of this on his own. He depends entirely on his enablers. The Tory party unmasked itself this week, finally and for all time. Hundreds of its MPs gathered in the Commons. They heard their leader traduce parliament, challenge the judiciary and defend law-breaking. They did not walk out in disgust. They gave him a sustained round of applause.

The old Conservative Party, for all its faults, has withered and died. Like the US Republicans who have provided such key inspiration, the Tories have entirely remodelled themselves in the image of the demagogue who leads them. They have sacrificed their honour on the altar of promised electoral success. Conservative MPs are either wholly committed to the zeitgeist of anarchist destruction or nodding supinely and looking the other way. This is the party of monarchy, dependable government and law and order, and the PM is trampling all of them—but nothing trumps the nebulous concept of party loyalty. All are culpable.

This week we witnessed the next steps of a very deliberate revolution. This is the end of civility and the end of playing by the rules. Language has no more limits and basic decency has no more value. This is Trump’s Britain in ways we can only begin to compute. Our country, its institutions and its future are at stake, and the people charged with their protection are carefully crushing them.

In the end this is not about Brexit, but about who we are as a country, and as people. Something has died: something of our compassion, our care, our respect for one another. The sense of bereavement is real and justified. But we have not lost everything. The struggle for our political and civic lives now begins.