Boris Johnson's Britain is a test case for strongman politics

DONALD Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban – it still seems a bit startling to add the name of Boris Johnson to that roll-call of “strongman” leaders from the US, Brazil, the Philippines, Turkey, India and Hungary. After all, the British prime minister has built his political career by marketing himself as a “good chap”, affable, well-read, a liberal at heart. What has he got in common with the likes of Mr Duterte or Mr Erdogan?

Quite a lot, as it happens. In recent years, strongman politics has flourished all over the world. It is no longer confined to authoritarian states such as China and Russia. As Mr Trump, Mr Orban and Mr Bolsonaro have all demonstrated, even democracies can elect leaders who revel in a cult of personality and delight in their willingness to trample over political and legal norms.

The strongman playbook is now well established. Its key features include a willingness to bend or break the law; to fire public servants if they fail to demonstrate loyalty; and to delight supporters with “politically incorrect” comments on race and sex. The strongmen justify their contempt for liberal niceties by claiming that they represent the people against a corrupt and out-of-touch political class.

Many in the British elite still cling to the belief that these kinds of tactics might work in Brazil, Hungary or even the US, but that “it couldn’t happen here”. Writing in the Daily Mail, usually a pro-Brexit and pro-Johnson paper, columnist Stephen Glover suggested last week that Mr Johnson “may have forgotten that British people shy away from leaders who display thuggishness and brutality”.


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But this fabled British moderation and respect for fair play could be weaker than often thought. A recent survey for the Hansard Society suggested that 54 per cent of people agree that “Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules”; just 23 per cent disagreed.

In recent days, Mr Johnson has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to break the rules. His decision to prorogue Parliament for the longest period since 1945 was described as an “offence against the democratic process” by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons. Mr Johnson and his allies are now seeking to remove Mr Bercow by breaking the convention that the Speaker is allowed to run for his parliamentary seat unopposed.

Mr Johnson’s decision to expel 21 MPs from his own Conservative party for opposing his Brexit plans is straight out of the strongman manual, with its emphasis on loyalty to the leader. The prime minister is also hinting heavily that he is prepared to break the law, rather than obey Parliament and request an extension to Britain’s membership of the EU. As soon as he can force an election, Mr Johnson clearly intends to run as the tribune of the people against Parliament.

The good news is that, so far, British institutions have proved more robust, its politicians more courageous and Mr Johnson more inept than seemed possible – even a week ago. The prime minister’s efforts to curtail parliamentary debate backfired, persuading MPs to act quickly. Mr Johnson has also failed in his initial attempts to call a snap election.

But given the desperation and ruthlessness of Mr Johnson and his key adviser, Dominic Cummings, it is far too soon to celebrate the defeat of the strongman style in British politics. The Johnson-Cummings duo will keep breaking the rules. They know that most voters do not care about political process, and that Parliament is unpopular. If and when an election takes place, Mr Cummings will market Mr Johnson as the man who will respect the will of the people by getting Brexit done, “do or die”.

In an election, the Johnson team are likely to drop any remaining pretence to cultural liberalism and instead will follow the international populist playbook, campaigning on law and order, immigration and “culture war” issues. The Johnson campaign is already (literally) positioning their man as a strongman figure. Last week, the prime minister appeared against a backdrop of police cadets, giving a speech that was Trump-like in both its setting and its rambling incoherence.

Ironically, Mr Johnson used to argue that reverence for parliamentary democracy is what has kept Britain safe from despotism. In his biography of Winston Churchill, he quotes his idol’s statement about the chamber of the House of Commons: “This little place is what makes the difference between us and Germany. It is in virtue of this that we shall muddle through to success and for lack of this Germany’s brilliant efficiency leads her to final disaster.”

However, Mr Cummings, Mr Johnson’s most influential adviser, is fascinated by Otto von Bismarck, the leader who unified Germany and who was famous for his contempt for parliamentarianism. It was Bismarck who notoriously remarked that the “great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions . . . but by iron and blood”.

A similar yearning for “strong leadership” is once again spreading around the world. Even Britain could yet succumb to it. But if the British political system has the strength to reject the virus of strongman politics, it will do a service to democracy around the world. FT

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