He is a populist leader who is using nationalism to divide the country into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ for his own political gains. He has tried to tear down democratic institutions and broken the law in the bargain but refuses to apologise when caught, using offence as the main form of defence.
Opponents are called ‘traitors’ and his inflammatory language has emboldened supporters to carry out hate crimes, including murder, against anyone who disagrees with their ideology. Opposition parties are blamed for everything in the past, present and future, and character assassinations of opposition leaders are carried out as soon as they pose a threat. Political discourse has reached an all-time low.
I am referring to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his supporters in the Conservative party who have brought the country to the worst crisis it has faced in nearly a century.
Boris, as leader of the ‘Leave’ campaign to exit the European Union, popularly known as Brexit, used lies, fear and hatred to get the public to vote for Leave in the referendum in 2016. In a shocking result that divided the country right down the middle, 52% of Britons voted to come out of the EU while 48% wanted to stay in the 28-member trading bloc.
From then on, Boris believed he should be prime minister and if he hadn’t been stabbed in the back by one of his closest colleagues in the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove, he would have taken over from Prime Minister David Cameron.
While being a part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet, Boris spent his next three years undermining her and voting against any trade deals that she negotiated with the EU for a smooth exit. He led from the front in bringing May down and finally in July this year, his lifelong dream came true when he was elected leader by Conservative Party members and became prime minister.
Boris, like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, American president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin, is in the mould of ‘strong’ leaders who are ruling democratic countries today. They all belong to the Steve Bannon school of far-right, national populist conservative political movements that have captured power around the world.
Like Modi, Boris is considered to be a charismatic leader, though their styles are different. While Modi is known as an orator whose speeches are well-crafted and does not say a word out of turn, Boris is known for his off the cuff remarks, his cultivated jester-like persona that makes him a ‘likeable fellow’ as his supporters suggest. His tousled blond hair and disheveled appearance is as calculated to enhance his charisma as is Modi’s meticulous attention to his dress.
Boris has the habit of using inflammatory language to its full effect – dividing the country and bringing down political discourse. In his very brief outing as prime minister in the House of Commons, Boris has called his opponents ‘traitors’, who have ‘betrayed’ the country by bringing in a ‘Surrender’ Act that will not allow him to crash out of the EU without trade deals in place.
When opposition MPs, particularly women, pointed out that his language had emboldened Brexit supporters to abuse them in a similar fashion, both online and on the streets, even issuing death threats to them and their family, Boris reacted with humbug, adding insult to injury.
Like Modi, Boris also falls back on populist sloganeering which sounds good but has very little substance. The British prime minister’s current slogan is ‘Get Brexit Done’ which is fine, but he would do it at any cost. MPs within his party point out that no deals have been negotiated yet and crashing out of the EU would be disastrous for the British economy, but Boris passes this off as ‘scaremongering’.
In order to achieve his goals, Boris has attacked democratic institutions and the sovereignty of parliament. Under the pretext of the Queen’s speech, Boris prorogued Parliament for five weeks so that he could push through Brexit without giving MPs ample time to consider any deals the government may or may not have negotiated.
However, there was a severe pushback from MPs cutting across party lines. The UK’s Supreme Court, which is still independent, ruled the shutting down of parliament as illegal and the Speaker John Bercow despite being a Conservative MP, did his job impartially and resumed parliament immediately.
Being unapologetic and brazening out any criticism is another Boris trait. After being rebuked by the Supreme Court, Boris refused to apologise but instead blamed the opposition for putting obstacles in his way over Brexit creating an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ binary. Anyone who was against his no-deal Brexit was obviously a ‘Remainer’ who wanted to ‘surrender to the EU’.
Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, much like Rahul Gandhi, has been under attack from Boris and his team from the time he took over the party. Projected as an anti-Semitic Communist, Corbyn has been the victim of character assassination by Eurosceptic spin doctors, and yet he remains popular among his party members.
Both Modi and Boris are keen to leave their mark on history. Modi would like history to see him as the ‘Father of a New India’, irrespective of how divisive the new India is. Boris wants Brexit to be his political legacy and he doesn’t mind what price the country pays for it.
(Sajeda Momin has held senior positions in Indian newspapers and now divides her time between Kolkata and London.)