How Boris Johnson Lost the Plot
The pandemic and Brexit-related headaches are lingering, and his rival Nigel Farage might be poised for a comeback.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article on how Boris Johnson had outplayed populist Nigel Farage. Farage’s star was dimming, whereas Johnson commanded a double-digit lead in the polls, after first having successfully negotiated a trade deal with the EU and shortly thereafter led a record-breaking vaccine rollout that was the envy of the rest of the world.
Now, the Labour party has overtaken the Conservatives in polling averages, and Nigel Farage is teasing a return to party politics, having left his own party in January of this year. This party, the Reform party, formerly known as the Brexit Party, was Farage’s successor party to the famous UK Independence Party. How did this happen?
The vaccine boost that didn’t last. The U.K.’s vaccine rollout was the envy of the world. Armed with an arsenal of mostly AstraZeneca doses, the U.K. proceeded to leap-frog the rest of the world (save for Israel and a few gulf states) in getting needles into arms earlier this year. The EU feebly demanded the U.K. share some of its vaccine supply, which gave the British government an opportunity to rally the nation against the would-be needle robbers from Brussels. The U.K. was the first government in Europe to publish a roadmap for lifting the lockdown and fully returning to normal life: June 21 was announced as Freedom Day. Skeptics of vaccines and lockdowns (Farage being in the latter category) failed to catch on with the mainstream audience as the lockdown was to end soon anyway, and all the Brits had to do was get vaccinated.
Then, shortly before June 21, the remaining restrictions were extended. Freedom day was no more. The Delta variant had caused an alarming uptick in cases, and out of the three major vaccines used in the EU, AstraZeneca’s—the one most Brits had received—just so happened to be the worst at fighting this new variant. While the U.K. did lift restrictions four weeks later than planned—still far earlier than most other Western countries—quite a bit of the air had gone out of the government’s triumphant success.
With more variants and more cases, the boost that the government got from the vaccine rollout is now gone. Last Christmas brought an unexpected lockdown announced just days before the celebrations. More and more Brits fear a repeat this year, although the government strenuously denies planning one. The government also denies that it held a Christmas party last year while the rest of the country was locked down, even as evidence is piling up that such a party did, in fact, take place. This apparent hypocrisy is the latest in a long run that has eroded support for Johnson and damaged his image as an approachable, down-to-earth politician different from his colleagues.
Everyone hates tax hikes, conservatives more than others. The U.K., like most governments, has struggled with large budget deficits during the pandemic. But unlike most governments, the Johnson administration has raised taxes, ostensibly to deal with this deficit.
An outside observer might be forgiven for thinking that Johnson must be an ardent deficit hawk. That, however, is not the whole story. The truth is that Boris Johnson was elected in 2019 on a very expansionary fiscal agenda, promising a wealth of new government investment to the forgotten areas in northern England. This region had historically been a stronghold of the Labour Party, being home to the famous “red wall.”. When Johnson’s political legacy is summarized, one—maybe the—highlight will be the destruction of this red wall.
What Johnson figured out was that the “red wall” voters were far more socially conservative than the Labour Party (and indeed the U.K. as a whole), and furthermore they despised the EU. Economic policy had kept these voters in Labour’s camp, but Johnson’s populist brand of conservatism, with promises of significant government investment, was able to win them over. Johnson has attempted to fulfill these promises, but it cannot be done for free. Paying for both pandemic support and an investment spree in northern England using borrowed money would be imprudent, so something had to give. That something was his promise during the election campaign not to raise taxes. Time will tell if this turns out to be as serious a mistake as George HW Bush’s “Read my lips”.
Fundamentally, the Conservative Party is made up of factions with very different interests. While catering so strongly to the socially conservative, anti-EU faction, Johnson forgot that his party also has another faction that votes Tory primarily because they want smaller government in general and tax cuts in particular. Many of these voters either supported remaining in the EU or did not feel very strongly one way or another about it, and they are confused by the government fighting culture wars when it should be focusing on finding ways to let them keep more of the money they earn.
The “blue wall” is a region of 53 constituencies that voted against Brexit, but subsequently voted Conservative in the 2019 election. These seats are the Conservatives’ heartland, just as the red wall is Labour’s. In all of these constituencies, education levels (and presumably incomes) are higher than average—the exact opposite of the red wall. Polling conducted this summer showed Conservatives had lost 8 percent across the “blue wall” compared to the 2019 election, and one should keep in mind that the Conservatives at the time were still leading the polls nationally.
Johnson may well figure that, as he is not required to call an election before 2024, he has a lot of time on his hands to smooth things over with his core voters. He may believe that a strong post-pandemic recovery will allow him to cut taxes even more than he raised them, and he may be right. But if he is not, it is likely to cost him his premiership.
Johnson forgot what people liked about his Brexit politics. Ever since the referendum, Brexit has been on the British political agenda. The exit from the European Union was repeatedly delayed and fraught with negotiations during which both sides often accused the other of acting in bad faith. Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, was forced out over her failure to carry out the result of the referendum. Boris Johnson had, unlike May, campaigned for Brexit. But when he called a general election in late 2019, he was determined not to have the general election be a rerun of the referendum. Instead, he hurried to make a deal with the EU, and subsequently campaigned on a slogan of “Get Brexit Done.”
This was a stroke of genius. Boris correctly calculated that the number of voters who supported Brexit was by far smaller than the number of people who just didn’t want to hear anymore about Brexit. After three years, a strong majority of Brits were sick and tired of the topic.
The pro-EU Labour Party campaigned on holding another referendum on Brexit. Johnson and his Conservatives on the other hand told voters “We’ll wrap up Brexit with this deal we’ve already negotiated and then you’ll never have to hear about Brexit again.” This offer was too tempting to pass up, and the voters gave Johnson and his party a strong majority.
Then suddenly, it was as if Johnson had forgotten that his campaign had been specifically about getting Brexit done, not about picking fights with the EU.
With Freedom Day delayed, Johnson apparently thought it a good idea to direct everyone’s attention to the EU and demand that the trade agreement with the EU be renegotiated: the same trade agreement he had himself signed and lauded at the time.
Most of the issues revolve around Northern Ireland, which was functionally left to still be under the influence and regulations of the EU. As supply chains have struggled to adapt, the British government has sought to renegotiate the agreement. The government has made some reasonable requests, and the EU is acting in a vindictive manner. But the truth is that Conservatives can no longer claim they got Brexit “done,” simply because the saga has continued. Of course, the U.K. has left the EU, but Johnson played into the Brexit fatigue to win the election. If renegotiation was truly necessary and justified, the government should have sought to renegotiate quietly through diplomatic channels, rather than making a big show out of it.
The migrant crisis shows the difficulty in “taking back control” over borders. Border control was one of the main selling points of Brexit. As part of the EU, the U.K. maintained free movement between itself and the other member states. Free movement was never popular in the U.K., which saw a large influx of immigrants, not least after the accession of Eastern European countries like Poland and Romania. Many Brits who did not oppose immigration per se none the less thought it strange and inappropriate that it was easier for a Polish plumber than a Canadian doctor to move to the U.K., as only the latter had to apply for a visa and pass tests in order to enter the country.
Now, asylum seekers are flooding British beaches and coastal towns at levels not seen for years. These asylum seekers have passed through France, where many of them have lived for months, most notably in the border town of Calais. Some have applied for asylum in France and been rejected, others are refusing to apply for asylum in France for various reasons, such as not knowing the French language or having family already living in the U.K. Neither of these are legally valid reasons to claim asylum in one country instead of another, but the French, having little desire to either provide for these asylum seekers or deport them (either option is costly), have mostly turned a blind eye to this and refused to help the U.K. guard its border. It is not crazy to believe that part of France’s unwillingness to cooperate is due in some part to spitefulness, a feeling that since the British wanted to leave the EU to protect their borders, by all means let them do it on their own. The U.K. government has countered by threatening to suspend visas for EU citizens from any country that refuses to take back asylum seekers who passed through its territory on the way to the U.K. and thus should have applied for asylum there.
The Johnson government has not done anything in particular to cause or, arguably, even mismanage the issue. There is only so much a country can do to stop asylum seekers from arriving without violating international law.
Does this mean Nigel Farage is poised for a comeback? Maybe. Nigel Farage himself certainly seems to think so, but I’m not so sure that he is right.
Nigel Farage is an interesting character. Many thought he would be content spending the rest of his days as a political commentator, occasionally causing headlines by saying something controversial but otherwise remaining on the sidelines. It appears we were wrong. Farage has attempted to win a seat in the U.K. parliament seven times, and lost all seven. It is unclear whether election to parliament would give Farage a platform much bigger than the one he currently has, as the average MP has very little speaking time, and Farage—assuming he does not run as a Tory—would be a minor party MP and have even less. The desire to win elected office seems to have more to do with validation for Farage personally, and/or wanting to scare the Tories into adopting his policies.
The problem is that there is no simple solution to the immigration problem. Even Farage would not want to use lethal force against asylum seekers (he has stated as much).
The problem of the U.K. losing its sovereignty to the EU did have a rather simple, obvious solution: Leave the union. The border crisis is less obvious. In theory, the U.K. could, of course, refuse to process the asylum applications. This would be a violation of international law, which dictates that people have a right to apply for asylum regardless of whether they entered a country legally or illegally. Polling has shown that only a minority (35 percent) of Brits disagree with this, so this is unlikely to be the kind of broad vote-winning issue that Brexit was.
Further, while the border crisis is real, the truth is that the U.K. government is not actually approving more applications for asylum than normal. While the number of accepted applications have increased in the past half year or so, it is still less than what it was before the pandemic. The government is not giving any hints that it is looking at offering amnesty to the people camping out in Calais.
Farage could campaign on closing the border entirely and not accepting any asylum seekers, but again that position would be far less popular than the anti-EU sentiment in the U.K. which actually preceded Farage. In fact, only 9 percent of Britons believe the country should allow no refugees at all to resettle in the country, and only an additional 17 percent would have the country admit fewer refugees, provided those refugees are in fact fleeing war or persecution. That being said, very few believe that the U.K. should have to pay for the costs associated with migrants crossing the channel over from France, though many are open to some cost-sharing agreement.
Farage’s big problem has always been the two-party system that makes it virtually impossible for small parties to get representation equal to their share of their national vote. At its height, UKIP won 12 percent of the vote in 2015, but only one seat out of 650. This despite the fact that UKIP was able to take voters from both parties, as both parties had plenty of Euroskeptical grassroots. This also allowed Farage to argue that a vote for UKIP was not a vote that would “let the other party in.” This was of course only partially true as UKIP did take far more voters from the Conservatives than from Labour. It would not be true at all if Farage were to re-enter politics and campaign on migration, as this is an issue where the only voters he would be able to peel away would almost exclusively be Tory voters in the socially conservative “red wall” seats, which would allow the Labour Party to win those seats back
And again, many of the voters that Boris Johnson have lost are “blue wall” voters, and these are voters who would obviously never support Nigel Farage.
If Nigel Farage does re-enter politics, the Reform party that he founded may enjoy a boost in the polls, especially if the government’s problems continue. As things stand right now, he will however struggle to repeat the success of UKIP, as migration appears to be less fertile ground for an upstart party than the question of EU membership once was. In the end, Farage may run into the same problem he always has: Turning good polling into actual election victories.