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20 July 2022

Don’t fall for Boris Johnson’s “deep state” conspiracy theory

It’s appealing for those in power to pretend there’s another, hidden elite somewhere preventing them from fulfilling their promises.

By Jonn Elledge

“Some people will say as I leave office that this is the end of Brexit,” Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on 18 July, as he defended his government against the confidence vote that it had, confusingly, decided to call in itself. “Oh yes, and the leader of the opposition and the deep state will prevail in their plot to haul us back into alignment with the EU as a prelude to our eventual return. And we on this side of the House will prove them wrong.”

It’s hardly “we will fight them on the beaches” (a setting, one must assume, that a demob-happy Prime Minister who isn’t even pretending to care about the nation any more would much rather be fighting in during this heatwave). It does, however, contain two unnerving phrases that are worth a moment’s thought.

The less unnerving is the use of “some people” to mean something roughly akin to “the silent majority”: that is, “a group of people I’ve just made up in my head who, gratifyingly, agree with me about everything”. It’s unclear which people believe that, without Boris Johnson in Downing Street, Britain will magically ping back into the EU as if it never left, for the very good reason that this is an absurd opinion that few could actually hold. But by attributing it simply to “some people”, Johnson doesn’t need to spell out who those people are. He thus avoids the rhetorically unhelpful fact that they are mostly, and quite possibly exclusively, him.

[See also: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak begin their summer of hustings]

The other, much more worrying phrase in that speech is “deep state”. This, as anyone who has read my new book (some people are calling it the book of the summer) Conspiracy: A History of Boll*cks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them – co-written with Tom Phillips – will know, is the language of the conspiracy theorist. In just two words, it conveys a belief that elected leaders are not the only, or most important, holders of political power: somewhere unseen lie bigger, scarier, more malign forces that have their own agendas.

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The phrase has been hanging around the back alleys of the internet for years, like the smell of drains in a heatwave, and for much the same reason. But it first burst into the mainstream political lexicon in the early months of 2017, as the team around President Donald Trump first got their hands on the levers of power and discovered that they still couldn’t do exactly as they wanted.

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One possible explanation for their struggle was that politics was a more complicated business than the far-right conspiratorial mindset had made it out to be, and that the president’s power was tightly circumscribed by the checks and balances and separation of powers laid out in the US constitution. A far simpler and more attractive possibility, though, was that invisible liberal forces were simply standing in their way.

Boris Johnson seems to be using the phrase in much the same way and for much the same reason. The existence of the deep state – a secretly liberal-left civil service, presumably backed up by Remoaning corporations and so forth – that constantly threatens his agenda suggests that Brexit will always be imperilled unless the Tories are in government to fight for it. It provides a way of blaming government failures on malign actors rather than ministerial incompetence.

And it helpfully means that, no matter how much power Johnson’s side amasses, it can still convince itself – and tell its voters – that he and they aren’t really the elite at all. There is another, hidden elite somewhere preventing them from doing what needs to be done – a line so much more appealing than the more honest “we lied to you and/or promised the impossible”. It’s an all-purpose explanation for why things have gone wrong and why the only way of setting them right is to keep handing these charlatans yet more power.

There is no deep state, of course: the real thing blocking the Brexit dividend is the unhelpful fact that there’s a trade-off between sovereignty and growth, which is what some people (God, I’m doing it now) have been saying all along. But it suits Boris Johnson to tell us, and possibly himself, that there is – and that he is the only one who can save his party from it.

[See also: Calm down about the heatwave? The right-wing press takes us for fools]

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