Ever since I came to London 15 years ago I have always loved the constant drama of British politics. Compared with the rather dull nature of parliamentary proceedings in Berlin, it seemed exciting and entertaining. Now, though, after two years of Boris Johnson, who has taken the refreshingly confrontational style of Westminster politics and turned it into a dark pantomime, I feel like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.
If that metaphor seems trite, let us remember that, in its purely Carrollian sense, to fall down a rabbit hole means to stumble into a bizarre and disorientating alternate reality, where black is white and white is black. And that is precisely where we are now, in the so-called “post-Johnson era”. He is gone, but he isn’t. His former colleagues are outraged about his behaviour, but nobody wants to say a bad word about him. Brexit is done, but then it isn’t, and instead needs to be saved from the traitors. Welcome to Alice’s world.
The opportunity for a fresh start after Johnson’s imminent departure has already been wasted. No one in the race for the Tory party leadership has come out against the Johnsonian disregard for constitutional norms, the breaches of international law, or the manifest cruelty (and, most probably, utter illegality) of the Rwanda deportation policy. And for that reason, it really doesn’t matter which of the surviving candidates succeed him at No 10.
What is worse, none of the would-be successors has the courage to question the founding myth behind all this chaos: Brexit. None of them will admit that the latter is little more than a mirage. With his all but fact-free approach, Johnson was the ideal politician to sell the benefits of this illusion shimmering on the horizon: out of his mouth, destroying the decades-long pillars of UK economic and foreign policy was not a hazardous undertaking, but merely a fun adventure. The Brexit ultras happily ignored his lies until they no longer could, for fear of inviting scrutiny of his biggest fraud.
What is astonishing is how much the British public still seems to be going along with all this, willing to suspend its disbelief – with the result that any critical analysis of Brexit remains taboo. In the first TV debate on 15 July on Channel 4, not a single question even mentioned Brexit. And if the B-word was spoken, it was only for the candidates to outdo themselves promising ever more fantastical fixes to problems of their own making.
While there is no shortage of studies demonstrating the real-world economic cost of Brexit in its current form, down in the burrows of Tory ideology, it remains an article of faith. Dissent is immediately contested, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. By way of example, the trade deals with Australia and New Zealand talked up by Liz Truss may harm the British farming industry; and as the Department of Trade had to reveal following a freedom of information request by Labour’s shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, Truss was given express warning of this possibility. Yet she ploughed on regardless – and is now trying to sell this deal as one of her successes.
In Britain these days, black is white and white is black, and the current field of potential Johnson successors are just swapping his lies and illusions for their own. How, though, did things get this bad? Overall, there are three interlocking, self-reinforcing factors at play.
The first core problem is that, under Boris Johnson, the Tories ceased to be a conservative party in the traditional sense. Once the party of business whose self-professed aim was to maintain prosperity, the Tories have now traded – in a strange mutation of democratic principles – their broad support of UK plc for a heavy dependency on a small number of extremely wealthy donors who have always supported Boris Johnson’s policy of “Brexit and damn the costs!”
As Johnson’s fate hung in the balance in early June, 22 of these financiers published an open letter in full support of him in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. It was a stark warning shot to all those in the party who felt that Johnson’s position had become morally untenable. If you think I’m now spouting leftist conspiracy theories, I’m not. Nadine Dorries helpfully explained the mechanism on Sky News in an interview with Beth Rigby on 6 June: “The Conservative Party donors have said themselves that they aren’t going to support the party if the Prime Minister is removed. I think a number of MPs in marginal seats need to hear that and need to understand what they’re doing: £80m those donors have donated to the Conservative Party over recent times.”
One can assume that these donors will not now suddenly relish the prospect of an independent, critical mind in Downing Street. And the fact that Johnson legislated to strip the Electoral Commission’s independence (ie, the very institution charged with exercising oversight of campaigns and donations) means that the influence donors exert will likely remain the same – or even get worse.
The second reason the UK remains entangled in Johnson’s web of lies is that the country’s media is, to a large extent, also controlled by a small number of multi-billionaires. Murdoch reportedly once explained he disliked the EU because “when I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice”. While Murdoch has repeatedly denied he ever said this, even he would be unlikely to dispute his own interest in Brexit – the former prime minister John Major has said Murdoch told him to change his Europe policy if he wanted News International’s support in the 1997 general election.
The Murdoch press, the Mail newspapers, and the Barclay brothers’ Telegraph titles are all central parts of Johnson’s political base. They backed him to be Tory leader, backed him in the 2019 general election, and they are still backing him even now. On the morning after the apparent resignation, Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail instantly picked up on the stabbed-in-the-back myth Johnson had seeded in his resignation speech, and Christopher Hope in the Telegraph is already enthusing about a potential Johnson comeback. It is plain to see that, even now, Johnson still has the support of the big newspaper proprietors.
For as long as this remains so, not only does Johnson himself continue to wield considerable influence over the Tory party, but none of his potential successors will dare to burst his ideological Brexit bubble. I always thought comparing Johnson with Donald Trump was a bit lazy. Yet Johnson’s denial of defeat will almost certainly have a destructive effect on British democracy. And it is not just him sniping against “treacherous” Tories from the sidelines. As his Trumpian remarks on the “deep state” and its plot to “haul [Britain] back into alignment with the EU” in parliament on 18 July show, he is willing to go much further rhetorically.
Which takes us to the third reason the UK remains trapped in the rabbit hole: Labour under Keir Starmer. Theoretically, it would be the job of Her Majesty’s Opposition to expose the gap between reality and fantasy that characterises Brexit. Yet Starmer is running away from the issue, promising instead to “make Brexit work” and venturing to suggest that Britain could be better off outside the European single market and the customs union. While depriving Johnson of an obvious line of attack may be a good tactical move in the short term, the strategic price is high: Starmer not only fails to attack the Tories head-on over Brexit, but also, at a moment when the priority of any opposition must be to re-establish trust, he ends up looking disingenuous. After all, the actual plan to first win an election and then begin a gradual rapprochement with the EU is all too evident. Moreover, on simple factual terms, Starmer’s slogan – “make Brexit work” – is, without re-entering the single market or at least the customs union, simply impossible. As such, his position is little more than a weak echoing of Johnson’s “get Brexit done”, making Starmer complicit in denying the complex problems posed by Brexit.
The deafening silence will go on. Whoever succeeds Johnson will soon have a new problem: stripped of the “Johnson effect”, the Tory refusal to accept the negative impact of Brexit will become ever-more manifest as rampant inflation and an increasingly dramatic cost-of-living crisis render it harder to distort reality. Already, only 35 per cent of Britons still consider leaving the EU the right thing to do, while 53 per cent see it as a mistake – a “record high” according to John Curtice, who carried out the survey for the Times. This is supported by greater evidence that Brexit is causing lasting damage to UK economic prospects.
What will happen next is frustratingly predictable. The next Tory leader will continue trying to distract the country from its problems by starting new culture wars – or, as Penny Mordaunt put it over the weekend, by trying to “re-do Brexit”, whatever that is supposed to mean. After having banged their heads into the brick wall of Brexit reality, the new Tory strategy seems to be to just keep on banging, only this time with a longer run-up.
In Lewis Carroll’s novel, Alice falls for quite a while – long enough to grab some food off a passing shelf, for instance, and to speculate erroneously about all manner of ideas. Unlike Alice, however, the British public is no longer bound for Wonderland. Rather, it is free-falling into the unknown, with all sorts of strange and nonsensical things flashing past.
Hitting rock bottom will be hard. And while Alice eventually wakes up to the happy realisation that it was all a bad dream, Britain will have no such luck.
Translated from German by Brian Melican.