The Travails of Boris Johnson

Photograph Source: DFID – UK Department for International Development – CC BY 2.0

A curious feature of commentary on the travails of Boris Johnson is that his supporters and critics both claim that he is a unique phenomenon. He is “different from other politicians” say TV and radio commentators seeking to explain his survival in office after scandals and policy disasters. But this reputation for Houdini-like skills possessed by him alone is entirely undeserved.

What is striking about Johnson’s personality and career is, on the contrary, how similar they are to those of other populist nationalist politicians who have risen to power around the world, mostly within the last decade. These include Viktor Orban in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the US, to name but four, who all sing similar political tunes and behave in a similar way.

Bombastic nationalism is a common feature, as is the exaggeration of threats at home and abroad (immigration and the EU in Britain; migrants on the Mexican border and Iran in the US; Muslims in India; migrants and foreign influencers in Hungary).

The stench of corruption is strong everywhere while their governments become more authoritarian and seek to maximise their control of the media. Not for nothing are these regimes sometimes described as “pluto- populist”, with the plutocrats usually getting what they want by way of tax breaks and contracts, though the big promises made to the victims of globalisation and de-industrialisation are commonly unfulfilled.

Populist-nationalist administrations are degraded and societies are divided – divisions that the Johnsons and Trumps of this world manipulate to their own advantage. None of them pay a price for illegality or failure.

Today we got away with [it],” wrote Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s private secretary after one more drunken revel in Downing Street at the height of lockdown. This could be adopted as an all-purpose slogan by Johnson – as it could by Modi, Bolsonaro, Trump and Orban.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).