Why is Boris Johnson popular? Is he?

A still from a 1999 edition of Have I Got News For You, showing Boris Johnson sitting in front of a backdrop consisting of British newspaper cuttings from the time.
Boris Johnson on the BBC quiz show Have I Got News For You in December 1999.

Last Monday, a piece called Why Boris Johnson just keeps on winning, by the pro-Brexit academic Matthew Goodwin, appeared on the Tory-dominated opinion website UnHerd, which examined why the Tories continue to be several points ahead of Labour in opinion polls a year after Boris Johnson became leader despite a pandemic and a record contraction of the economy. (The piece is now offered as “best of the week” on UnHerd’s front page.) Goodwin claims that Johnson has “consistently been underestimated” and “routinely mocked and derided by people who have simultaneously failed to make sense of his appeal”. In this, Goodwin claims, he has achieved sustained popularity which has eluded any Tory prime minister since Thatcher. He claims that the reason is that Johnson appeals to a provincial vote which prioritises nationhood and favours stability over change, and rejects what he calls ‘declinism’, an over-developed awareness of Britain’s loss of place in the world.

First, it has to be remembered that it has only been eight months since Johnson won his only election victory so far. His party has a strong majority and thus it can be assumed that there will be no new election until this parliament’s five-year term is up. There is a sense of resignation that Johnson will be prime minister for some time, the people have spoken, and there’s little point in believing someone else should be and perhaps people believe it shows a disrespect for democracy (a point hammered home in the recent Brexit debate). Second, and this should be obvious: coming top of opinion polls is not the same as winning; general (and to a lesser extent local) election results are what can be won. Johnson has won a single election. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair each won three. John Major won one. David Cameron won one outright and won the peace, so to speak, after another. True, a general election can be won on the basis of much less than 40% of the vote when there are two significant opponents rather than just one (see 2005), but three general election wins represent lasting popularity in a way that a single result against a very weak and divided opposing party and a few months’ opinion poll results do not.

Third, we are indeed in the middle of a crisis and there is a saying that “you don’t change horses in the middle of a stream”, a phrase commonly used regarding war but could be deemed to apply equally to the current crisis. Furthermore, regardless of the flattery he may receive from the Labour Right, Keir Starmer has offered only weak opposition, cautiously criticising some of the government’s policies but suggesting no major change in direction. Like many on the timid Labour right, he behaves as if ‘opposition’ is a dirty word despite that being Labour’s position right now. This is a far cry from how Tony Blair behaved during his period as Labour opposition leader. Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has been in some regards scandalous, especially in terms of how nursing homes were swamped with infected patients from hospitals who then infected other residents and staff, but in other respects I believe the public mood supported his actions; there was no appetite, for example, for a stringent lockdown along the same lines as Italy or Spain. Italy’s was justified on the grounds of the terrible death toll in some northern cities which overwhelmed the local health system; Spain’s explicitly on the grounds of protecting the elderly who had supported their families during the most recent economic crisis. In this country, there is not as much love for the elderly in general; twenty years ago, when there were World War II veterans in their seventies, a stricter lockdown for their sake might have been thought justified. Today’s seventy-somethings are those born during the war and early baby-boomers and they are not seen as being anything like as heroic. The other major group of victims are disabled people, who have been victims of a government and press campaign against “benefit scroungers” since the 2010 election. While the death toll has been huge, people unaffected do not regard the victims as being people like them. Poorer minority ethnic communities with a large proportion of manual or health workers have been disproportionately affected. Many families, on the other hand, have lost nobody.

As for Johnson’s provincial vote base, Goodwin’s explanation is his standard dichotomy of the “citizens of somewhere” versus “citizens of the world/nowhere”. He claims that Johnson is unpopular in London, while popular across the rest of the South, popular among Leavers, Tories and the “working class” and unpopular among Remainers and the “middle class”. This ignores some of the results from both the 2016 referendum and the 2019 election; many districts in the “non-London south” voted to remain, particularly west of London, but many of these areas then voted strongly Tory in 2019. Johnson’s base is precisely the affluent western home counties; his original parliamentary seat was Henley in Oxfordshire. He won two terms as mayor of London. As for 2019, the weakness of Corbyn as a candidate for prime minister may have contributed to his success among Remainers, but Tory candidates polled well over 50% in constituencies in the out-of-London Remain belt, while they won with mere pluralities in some of their much-vaunted former “Red Wall” seats (though they won some of them with outright majorities as well).

Goodwin accuses Johnson’s opponents of a “culture of repudiation” which “is reflected in repeated claims that Britain is ridden with racism, that its history was more negative than positive, that its contribution to the world has been more bad than good”. He makes this generalisation about those who respond with approval to Johnson’s popularity polls:

What unites Boris Johnson’s voters is not so much their economic experience, as their values. They prioritise the nation and the national community. They prefer stability over change. And they favour continuity over disruption and discontinuity. This is why they cherish Britain’s history, heritage and collective memory and are more sensitive to attempts to deconstruct them. And while they acknowledge that this history is complex, they believe that, on the whole, it was positive and that Britain has been a force for good in the world. In short, they believe in their country. They are proud of it. And they are proud of their fellow citizens.

This is really preposterous. How can anyone believe in ‘stability’ and ‘continuity’ yet support taking the country out of a major trading bloc when there is no viable alternative, despite warnings of job losses, food shortages, disruption at borders and so on? And of course, people who have never been stopped and searched by police while walking in the street, or who have never been pulled over by police who believed that someone of their appearance with a nice car must have stolen it, will not think Britain is “ridden with racism”. People who were not affected by the British Empire’s atrocities will think it was a force for good in the world. It’s why English is the dominant language in popular culture; it’s why Britain was able to have a cotton-based textile industry (because Indian cotton was shipped in). People who have lived all their lives here have only known modern democracy and imagine that the British Empire was a bit like it; in fact, Britain itself was not a democracy for most of the time Britain had an empire. We do not learn about the famines caused by British policy in India at school; we have started hearing about atrocities against Kenyan natives during the so-called Mau Mau uprising only recently. We barely even know how the British army and police behaved in Ireland; unless you’ve studied it for yourself, you might think the IRA started it all.

He then accuses Remainers of falling victim to what he calls ‘declinism’: “the belief that Britain’s best days are in the past”, “the assumption that, because of decisions that went against their own politics, Britain has become a diminished world power, is falling behind other states and is led by incompetent, amateurish elites who either lack the required expertise or ‘correct’ ideology to reverse this decline or, worse, are actively perpetuating it”. Britain has become a diminished world power; we were an imperial power within living memory and have been reduced to the “mother country” and a few islands dotted here and there. There is an over-developed sense of Britain’s loss of power in some sections of the British elite and political class; this can be seen in how Britain signs extradition treaties that are not fully reciprocal, sending British citizens to face trial in other countries while many other states will not extradite their own nationals for things which are not crimes at home, or will not do so at all; we also do not ensure that the overseas judicial system is fair or not subject to undue delay. But there is a difference between a kind of debilitating consciousness of our own decline, such that our state refuses to protect its citizens or otherwise stand on its own two feet, and being realistic about the economic consequences of leaving the EU without a good deal.

On the contrary, it is Brexit supporters who most hanker for a past that has never existed, one in which Britain “stood alone”, beat Germany in the War and prospered. I have even seen interviews with people in bars who claimed that we were once an empire. Yes, of course, we were; we lost it. There was once a Europe of imperial mother countries — Britain, France, Spain, Portugal — and one that tried to build its empire among them. It was perpetually at war, for centuries. Since the end of World War II, there has been no conflict between any of those countries. Many Remainers do indeed mourn a very recent past in which the EU stood for a bond of friendship and a space in which people could learn each other’s languages and share each other’s cultures, regardless of the blind spots in that vision (it principally applied to white people; many countries became intolerant of minority cultures, and European powers, including the UK, sat on their hands while a genocide took place in Bosnia) but they very much celebrate the peace that has flourished in western Europe for all these decades and spread to southern and eastern Europe from the 1980s on. This is all observable fact; the Britain that “stood alone” is a myth.

Goodwin is, despite his academic background, offering up a profoundly anti-intellectual analysis. He persistently refers to a “liberal establishment” without offering any evidence that it exists. Our commercial media has long been dominated by reactionaries as proprietors know that appealing to base instincts and prejudices sell more copies than offering nuance and telling readers what they do not want to hear (e.g. that prison, for all but the most serious offenders, does not work); on the particular issue of Europe, they have peddled lies for decades. To make Johnson look like some kind of towering statesman, he uses extraordinary euphemisms and trivialises vitally important things; he describes Johnson’s supposed conservative, provincial base as having a “politics of faith” in which “they are generally willing to give him a free pass when he fumbles the more technocratic or process-led side of politics” — in other words, when he proves himself profoundly incompetent, potentially with the result of tens of thousands of lives lost, or shows contempt for parliamentary democracy by trying to close parliament when it should be in session. He proposes a straw man in which Remainers measure the “health of the nation” through GDP alone. No, it’s not the only measure of a nation’s health, but a functioning economy is important. With Britain cut off from its major trading partners, vulnerable to demands from other major players such as the USA and China, we will have much less of one and much less bargaining power. So much for stability.

Boris Johnson does not really connect with the wider Tory-voting public, much less with the ‘converts’ in the former “Red Wall”. Any such connection is fabricated by the sycophantic media; he is firmly based in London and the wealthy Thames valley, much as David Cameron was. His success has much to do with the weak opposition, both under Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer, and the divisions in their party, a matter that Goodwin does not even examine. Johnson has a certain amount of charisma, and has endeared himself to a section of the public through years on game shows and the like; his tenure as mayor of London was not the disaster many feared when an avowed racist and serial liar was elected to such an important role. But Tony Blair was charismatic as well; he also benefited from a divided and scandal-ridden opposition. His charisma only carried him so far — he won a third election by the skin of his teeth and resigned two years later — and the Tories recovered. Much the same can be said for Margaret Thatcher. Unlike either of those two, Johnson has a very long journalistic and political career distinguished for much ill: lying, racist rabble-rousing, wasting of public money, game-show timewasting. He has been in office for a year and it is too soon to describe him as someone who “keeps winning”.

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