The Stillbirth of Johnsonism
Philip Cunliffe argues that the soap opera surrounding the departure of top aides from Downing Street reveals the Tories' inability to chart a new political course.
As Britain and the EU drag themselves into the final act of negotiations over a trade deal, Britain’s public sphere has been consumed over the last several days with the tedious intrigue surrounding Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain’s departure from No. 10. As British diplomacy confronts such an important moment, is there any wider significance to the departure of two important and high profile political advisers to Prime Minister Boris Johnson? Is there any future for Johnson’s political vision, now that he is bereft of the strategists who propelled him to his general election victory in 2019?
It is difficult to extract any meaningful political analysis from much of the press coverage of the affair, which has been consumed with feeding the chattering classes’ Sunday-supplement appetite for the middlebrow drama of text message rumours, the intrigues of former wives and current girlfriends, national dramas played out over lunch meetings. Whatever the truth of all the tittle-tattle, the claims and counter-claims, the one definitive lesson that can be drawn from the cloud of speculation surrounding Cummings’ departure is that courtly politics is still firmly embedded in British public life, with the competition for political power being consumed by personal machinations and rivalries among unelected advisers, lovers and family members, but without being integrated into underlying national sentiments. Thus these personal rivalries express little or no underlying national concern or public interest, with the public at large reduced to the role of passive spectators. Reminiscent of the politics of European absolutist states of the eighteenth century, the Blair era ushered in the postmodern variant of courtly politics in the clashes between Tony Blair and his then-chancellor Gordon Brown, in which personal rivalries grew in inverse proportion to the underlying ideological homogeneity of New Labour.
That courtly politics still prevails in Johnson’s government so many years after the Blair era tells us that many of the same conditions still prevail – a Blairite-style state apparatus monopolised by a remote and parasitic political class in which public concerns are easily overwhelmed. It tells us that even after Britain has formally left the EU, Britain remains to all intents and purposes a member-state rather than a sovereign nation-state. Even if no longer an actual member of the EU club, Britain still bears all the traits of member-statehood – a state denuded of representative functions, lacking foundations amongst its citizens, weakened by its lack of democratic authority, unable to transform political power into public capacity.
This has been repeatedly displayed over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, in which Johnson signally failed to translate his 80-seat parliamentary majority into any democratic mandate that would have allowed him to avoid emergency rule and mediate competing demands and interests in responding to the pandemic – the interests of workers, regions, different industries, not to mention the wider concerns of public health and civil liberty. Instead, Johnson fell back onto the technocratic legitimacy offered by scientists and experts, ruling through inflated executive powers rather than democratic authority. The ruthless parasitism of the political class is more exposed than ever, as they have exploited their personal connections in government to feed off the weakened Leviathan, draining public coffers while failing to deliver any meaningful results. Witness the debacle of the NHS test-and-trace system, overseen by Dido Harding, the wife of Tory MP John Penrose.
When Boris Johnson seized former Labour constituencies in the North and the Midlands in 2019 to substitute for the Tories’ old electoral strongholds in the south east, it seemed as if Johnson might be the first leader successfully to pioneer a new populist one-nation conservatism for the twenty-first century, which would mobilise working class economic demands against globalist supremacy. In less than a year, Johnsonism has crumbled away, confirmed by Cummings’ expulsion from Downing Street. This demonstrates how weak Johnson’s political project always was, rooted in a gaggle of unelected advisers, lacking the capacity to overcome technocratic challenges. Frequently cast as the eminence grise of Johnson’s rule, Cummings’ expulsion by the Prime Minister’s consort Carrie Symonds so soon after the Tories’ electoral victory confirms not only the weakness of Johnson but also of Cummings, exposing the latter as a technopopulist dilettante, lacking in both political authority and responsibility.
The Prime Minister’s effort to reconfigure his rule by ousting Cummings and Cain shows that Britain’s technocratic tendencies will be strengthened. Johnson’s appointment of Allegra Stratton – who openly boasts of her lack of any ideological alignment – to set up a White House style briefing system, will consolidate the presidentialism of British politics oriented toward the media rather than the public, as well as the growth of executive as opposed to parliamentary power. Instead of a decade of Tory rule, it is now quite feasible that the Labour Party might eke out power in the 2024 election, prefiguring a dismal decade of democratic passivity while technocrats and populists vie for control of a failed state.