The unusual political changes I have witnessed in both my home country of the UK and the US since I arrived here eight years ago have unfolded with notable parallels. But have the American media talked about it too much?
The last time I voted in the UK was June 23, 2016. Before going to bed early at night, I watched a major figurehead of the Brexit campaign admit probable defeat on the national news and fall into an easy sleep. Jet lag woke me up a few hours later, so I grabbed my phone and watched police station after station confirming we were leaving Europe.
By noon Prime Minister David Cameron had resigned, sparking a tragicomic leadership race that left former Prime Minister Boris Johnson among the stabbing victims. (More soon.)
Five months later, I was back in my new home in the United States and I, along with the rest of the country, was swept up in the presidential race that was between a sane but uninteresting career politician and a dyspeptic media personality promising walls, coal, and steel. This time, I stayed awake deliberately to follow the results, and the creeping disgust felt familiar as Trump’s early wins in Ohio and Florida were followed by additional wins in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, handing him the presidency.
The unexpected rightward push reflected by the two elections signaled new political dawns in each of the countries where I have now made a claim.
Returning to the UK, Johnson did not return to political prominence until 2019, when he ran again for the leadership of the Conservative Party and this time won. (Unlike the US presidential system, the prime minister is simply the leader of the ruling party in parliament and can change at any time outside of general elections.)
Three years after the referendum, the British government had repeatedly failed to sell parliament on its terms of withdrawal from the EU, forcing Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, to step down. Johnson, the consummate opportunist, felt his time had come. The resentment he and other Brexiteers first stoked during the Vote Leave campaign had been fueled by years of anticipated market shocks with no compensating progress on any of their – mostly fanciful – commitments. Worn out by the failure of May’s soft diplomacy, the party and the country gave in to Johnson’s manic optimism.
He took his place in Downing Street – England’s equivalent of the White House – after winning the leadership vote by a large margin, then quickly expanded his parliamentary majority in the biggest Tory landslide since the days of Margaret Thatcher. .
It took three years of deception, scandal and constitutional havoc to finally knock Johnson from such dizzying heights. He was hanging by a thread when revelations emerged earlier this month that he had endorsed Chris Pincher for a cabinet job amidst reports he was aware of investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct. As ministers began to resign, first in drops, then in spurts, the thread finally broke.
Many U.S. pundits were quick to applaud the conservatives for finally ousting Johnson, noting in contrast how slavishly devoted the Republican Party has remained to Trump since his chaotic departure.
It’s reassuring that some Democratic offices survived the Johnson administration, but the comparison is more an indictment of Republican degeneracy than a reason to applaud their transatlantic equivalents. Most of the resignations were submitted by party leaders who remained stubbornly loyal to Johnson through scandal after scandal, until they finally felt political advantage in withdrawing their support. Several of his recent supporters are now vying for his successor.
But Johnson’s disappearance illustrates another common flaw in US media analysis of the Johnson administration, namely that it represents an English equivalent of Trumpism.
The comparison has some value. Both former leaders managed to capture populist sentiments based on the decline of working-class industries, rising immigration and establishment support for globalization. Both have carved out “man of the people” profiles by avoiding political correctness and sounding dog whistles at their bases. Both were elected promising results they knew they could not achieve. More superficially, the two sport signature bleached blonde haircuts.
Beyond these associations, however, Johnson and Trump have different political outlooks, temperaments and backgrounds. More importantly, they operate in different political contexts.
The idea, for example, of Johnson touring the UK after his ousting and cheering in the form of a MAGA-style rally is just laughable. It would never happen. After all, a prime minister is not a president. A small handful of voters in an upmarket west London suburb elected him to parliament, his party peers named him their leader, and the rest of the country was stuck with him.
That’s not to say he was never popular. As noted, the Conservatives won their biggest parliamentary majority in 30 years in a general election held shortly after his appointment, and although most of those votes were not cast for him, as leader of the gone, he clearly brought many in his wake. But ultimately, like the majority of modern prime ministers, he left office not after losing an election but by resigning at the whim of his party.
A British clone of Trump could not succeed in the UK, partly because the appointment of a Prime Minister by the party leadership rather than through popular elections – and the lower stature of the post at a presidency – discourages the rise of sectarian outsiders who disagree with the political establishment. But he would also fail in the UK because there are no equivalent movements for gun rights, abortion bans or healthcare privatization that he could mobilize to support him. .
BoJo and Brexit have shown that the UK has problems – deep – but they are different from those threatening America, where the solutions will not be found in the political trickery of Conservative Party ministers.