Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Video
10 August 2022

Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the “deep state”

Why authoritarians use conspiracy theories to distract from their own failures.

By Hugh Smiley

In one of Boris Johnson’s final addresses to the House of Commons as Prime Minister, he accused Keir Starmer last month of working in secret with “the deep state” to pull the UK back into the EU.

The conspiracy that shadowy actors are secretly controlling the government has long flourished in the murkier corners of the internet. But the theory burst into the mainstream of Western politics when former US president Donald Trump began to espouse it at his rallies, claiming that “unelected deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agenda are truly a threat to democracy itself”.  

As Jonn Elledge, New Statesman writer and author of Conspiracy, observes in the video above, Donald Trump’s staff “were now in some of the most powerful jobs in American politics, and they discovered that even despite that they still couldn’t make the American political system do exactly what they wanted”.

The US system contains necessary checks and balances to limit how much power a president can exercise – but this “boring” truth was overlooked by Trump. Instead, says Elledge, the “deep state” became a useful scapegoat for the failings of the president’s administration: “it’s a useful political idea because it conjures up an enemy, but it keeps it vague. So you can keep changing who the deep state might be.”

When Boris Johnson was facing his own imminent departure following a slew of scandals and policy failures, he adopted his own version of this “Trumpian” language. 

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

“Boris Johnson has landed on [the deep state] as an explanation because” – much like Trump – “he too failed” as a leader, says Elledge.

Content from our partners
How industry is key for net zero
How to ensure net zero brings good growth and green jobs
Flooding is a major risk for our homes

But 18 July was not the first time Johnson used the language of conspiracy theories at the despatch box. 

On 31 January, the same day that the redacted version of the Sue Gray report into Downing Street lockdown parties was published, Johnson accused Keir Starmer of “failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile” while he was director of public prosecutions.

This false claim led to much media uproar, successfully distracting, for a while, from the Gray report. But it also had real consequences for Starmer’s safety.

Only eight days after this accusation, the Labour leader was harassed by protesters near parliament. Shouts of “Jimmy Savile” and “traitor” could be heard as Starmer was escorted into a nearby police vehicle.

Conspiracy theories appear to have become an unfortunate mainstay in the post-truth era of politics, with real consequences beyond the virtual world of the internet where they first flourished.

[See also: Inside the Tory grassroots: what do Conservative Party members really want?]

Topics in this article: , , ,