What Brexit did to Boris Johnson and Britain

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Not so long ago I heard one of the leading Brexiteers describe his political philosophy to a room full of CEOs and top politicians. He began by speaking to this elite group of the great divide between “the elites” and “the people”, the winners and the victims of globalization, the haves and the have-nots of modernity. The longer he spoke, the more his words began to sound routine, distant, and outdated. The energizing Brexit campaign slogans of 2016 sounded hollow and cliché in 2022.

This is partly because the slogans weren’t true. Globalization was indeed bad for some people and good for others, but these groups were not clearly divided along rural-urban or rich-poor lines, or any other easily defined demographic line. Some farmers in the distant countryside have proven to be huge beneficiaries of Britain’s membership of the European Union. Some of the less well-off Britons have benefited from foreign investment. Moreover, many of those who loudly attacked the “elite” were not themselves among the losers of globalization. Boris Johnson was the most striking example of this phenomenon: he attended Eton and Oxford (just like in America, where all the loudest “anti-elitists” seem to have gone to Yale or Harvard Law School), and his campaign was funded by hedge fund managers and billionaires.

More importantly, Brexit, the solution to the problem described by Johnson and his supporters, was based on a series of lies. The electorate was promised that leaving the EU would lead not only to fewer immigrants, but to greater prosperity, more social spending, fewer overcrowded hospitals. Instead, six years after the vote, Britain is less prosperous and more unequal. Brexit reduces UK GDP by at least 1.5% even before it takes full effect; the UK has the highest inflation rate in the G7; small businesses, especially importers, have been crushed by Brexit bureaucracy and supply chain issues. However committees have been set up to search for “benefits of Brexit”, few are available. Rather, Brexiteers brag about Britain’s vaccination campaign or Britain’s support for Ukraine, both of which would have been perfectly compatible with EU membership.

Of course Brexit is not the reason Johnson has now resigned, or why his cabinet has melted down, or why his popularity plunged. But it is an essential part of the backstory. If British politics were a Faulkner novel, Brexit would be the tragedy of long ago that haunts all the main characters, even if they weren’t born when it happened. Why did a story about a gleeful drinking session his firm held during the COVID lockdown do Johnson so much damage? Partly because he was already suspected of dishonesty over Brexit, and ‘Partygate’ reconfirmed his image as a liar. Why did his Conservative colleagues finally decide not to withdraw it as Prime Minister when they voted last month? Partly because Johnson is so closely associated with Brexit that his rejection felt like a rejection of Brexit, the policy the party still claims as its greatest achievement. Why are Tory and Labor politicians shocked by his admission that he met a former KGB officer, who became a wealthy oligarch, at a private party in Italy when he was still Minister of Foreign Affairs, without the presence of other officials? Partly because the role of Russian money and influence in the Brexit campaign has never been fully explained.

No one will claim Brexit is the reason the Conservative Party just lost two by-elections and the Queen’s Jubilee service mob boo johnson when he arrived at the church. But Johnson’s perceived dishonesty is a byproduct of Brexit. The Tories’ perceived inability to deliver on their economic promises is a by-product of Brexit. The faltering economy itself is a partial by-product of Brexit. All of these things are lurking in the background, whether the Conservatives want to admit it or not.

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None of this is necessarily good for opponents of the Conservative Party. If Britain follows the pattern of other countries, then the failure of conservative populism may not return the public to a kind of predictable centrism. In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – a sort of proto-Johnson who did and said outrageous things – captured the public’s attention for years but achieved very little real reform. After leaving office, many Italian voters did not want to elect sober politicians who told them what the real hard choices were. Instead, the failure of populism drove them to the far left and the far right, to the eccentric Five star movementto pro-Russian leader Matteo Salvinior at the Brothers from Italy, a party directly descended from Mussolini’s disgruntled post-war supporters. As in the United States, the British electoral system restricts the range of options available to voters. But that doesn’t stop people from feeling a greater sense of alienation from politics and politicians than ever before.

Because we are talking about Westminster, not Washington, it is extremely unlikely, if not unimaginable, that Johnson will now stage a coup, encourage a violent march on the House of Commons or support the public hanging of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But Johnson has already broken many unwritten rules, and possibly written rules as well. British norms and traditions – you don’t lie in Parliament, for example – are weakening with each day that is left in Downing Street. Johnson’s appointees have deliberately chipped away at nonpartisan institutions, such as the judiciary and the BBC, undermining what few remaining areas of national unity and agreement.

These officials did it because they too were products of Brexit. No previous Conservative government would have allowed many of these mediocrities in cabinet. Public loyalty to Johnson and the lies he told are what got them their jobs, whether or not they originally believed in Brexit. Now we can watch them leave the ship. Soon they will no doubt swear an equally passionate loyalty to someone and something else.

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