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19 February 2020

Boris Johnson’s government is a permanent campaign – the left must change to defeat it

Progressives need to transform their intellectual and political strategy as radically as the Tory right has done. 

Boris Johnson is running a corrupt and racist government. If you baulk at the word corrupt, ask this: why is it still unclear who paid for Johnson’s Christmas holiday in Mustique, and how? Why is this most Atlanticist of prime ministers risking a fallout with Donald Trump over Huawei? And where, even now, is the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russian interference in our elections?

If you baulk at the word racist, you haven’t been listening to the news. Andrew Sabisky was hired as a Downing Street adviser, reportedly without vetting, not despite his racist views on black people’s IQs but perhaps even because of them. Now Priti Patel has unveiled a draconian immigration control system which is not only unworkable, but designed – through the chaos it will cause from next January – to plunge British politics into a perpetual argument about culture, race and language. In case it is not obvious, the new Immigration Act means we are probably 12 months away from the first deportation flight to Krakow, or Bucharest.

But in whose name is this corrupt, racist government actually ruling? Before the neoliberal era, there was a parlour game you could play in political science, asking: which fraction of the bourgeoisie does the government represent? In the era when the “finance versus industry” debate was real, and overlaid by “empire versus Europe”, you could calibrate every cabinet resignation along these lines. 

But once the free-market model was in its ascendancy in the 1980s, the whole idea that there were “fractions” within the British elite became redundant: there was a unified phalanx of CEOs, middle managers, economists, think tanks and politicians, bound together by their belief in globalisation, deregulated finance, social liberalism and the rule of law.

Johnson’s government – which has taken shape by stages since July 2019 – represents a clear break with that. First came the appointment of Dominic Cummings as senior adviser, and the purge of the pro-EU wing of the Tory parliamentary party. Next came the purge of the old, “respectable” Tory right, whose conservatism was rooted in the principle that government should do as little as possible. And now we are in a third confrontation stage: with the European Union, migrants and any social liberals in civil society who wish to stand in Johnson’s way. 

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That was the biggest takeaway from Brexit negotiator David Frost’s speech in Brussels – an ultimatum to Europe which, if it works, will see the UK leave the EU’s economic institutions in December without a deal, and open the way for Johnson to prioritise a trade agreement with a re-elected Donald Trump.

Frost threw a series of calculated insults into the faces of the bureaucrats who he will have to negotiate with, but the payload of the speech was this: for the UK under Johnson “sovereignty is meaningful and what it enables us to do is to set our rules for our own benefit”.

If Europe will not grant Britain a lopsided Canada-style trade deal, the UK will walk away and begin to compete directly with the EU, using divergent standards, labour market rules and financial deregulation to create a wholly different system.

There was not a single word about the consequences for the wider multilateral system from Frost: what the European security and policing agencies will do, how our Nato partners will react, what happens to fisheries or cross-border research projects. Because this government does not care. It’s going to have “sovereignty” at the price of everything, including its wider diplomatic influence in Europe. And as the care home sector and the farming industry are about to find out – when their supply of labour dries up – it does not give a toss about the short-term economic consequences.

So what’s emerged in the past two weeks, from the cabinet reshuffle, the Immigration Act and the European negotiations, is not an “administration” in the traditional sense. This government is effectively now a campaign – not just for re-election in 2024 but to reshape Britain into a xenophobic, deindustrialised pariah state.

What I want to hear from the Labour leadership contenders is how they are going to fight it. Whatever the motivation of Labour HQ in reducing the hustings to a soundbite competition, its result has been to exclude politics  in the sense of theory, analysis, sociology and psephology.

The government we are facing is part of a “nationalist international”. Its project – quite clear from Frost’s speech – is to wreck the multilateral order and turn British politics into a permanent crisis regime. The enemies it has chosen are already clear: migrants, judges, the BBC, “lefty academics”, the European Commission and any killjoy who objects to a racist getting a job in Downing Street.

When commentators ask: “how will Johnson deliver for the ‘Red Wall’ seats?” they are missing the point. As his response to the flooding crisis shows, Johnson has no intention of delivering jobs, investment and growth to the deprived small towns of the English Midlands and North-East. What he intends to deliver is xenophobia, and a pat on the head for anyone who wants to spout it.

He can be defeated, but only if the left – by which I mean Labour, the Greens, the nationalist parties and the Lib Dems – are prepared to make transformations in their thinking just as radical as the Tory right has done. There is an electoral majority even now for a close economic relationship with Europe, and for the regulatory alignment that implies – not just in politics but across large swathes of industry. Likewise, a majority of voters believe that eugenics, race science and misogyny have no place in the machinery of government.

The job of any opposition leader is to turn that majority into a political alliance: to negotiate, to network, to create capacity, to lead intellectually from the front. But to do so you have to understand what you are facing. Johnson’s administration – like Trump’s – will be a regime of chaos and confrontation. The normal rules of parliament won’t apply; ministerial interviews on the Today programme won’t happen; bipartisanship and the committee system will atrophy.

This is a regime of political con-artists, professional liars and hedge-fund billionaires. Margaret Thatcher may have represented the City of London, while Michael Heseltine represented British industry. But these guys represent only themselves. 

From that, in the short term, they will draw immense tactical advantage. In the long run they can be defeated by a coalition of everybody they have shafted – so long as we are prepared to make practical alliances and stop kowtowing to the very prejudices Johnson is fuelling.