Populism Personified: The Rise and Fall of Boris Johnson

6 Dec 2016

 With the resignation of the Italian PM Matteo Renzi, a committed Europhile, and the serious possibility of a Le Pen victory in the French Presidential race next year, the future does not look bright. The rise of populism has changed Western politics beyond all recognition and it seems the beginning of a long downward spiral for the democratic, global order that until recently felt so secure.


However if the political career of Boris Johnson in the last year has taught us anything, it is that populism is an unsustainable political tactic because it inevitably undermines itself.


The rise of Boris Johnson through the Conservative ranks in the last ten years has been nothing less than unique, rivalled only by the parallel rise of Nigel Farage. Born into a wealthy, internationalist family, educated at Eton and Oxford, a member of the Bullingdon Club and fan of foxhunting, it’s difficult to see how he was once the most popular British politician.


Johnson made himself into the antithesis of the 21st century politician. As an anti-politician: his dishevelled image and curious mannerisms set him worlds apart from David Cameron and the George Osborne, his smart and serious political peers. With studied buffoonery and a slight, but noticeable, imitation of Churchill, Boris Johnson was able to transcend the humdrum of party politics and immunise himself from gaffs and upsets that had hindered the careers of other politicians.


As a tactic it worked remarkably: media attention always portrayed him in the light that made Boris seem less the serious politician and more the court jester. Getting stuck on a zip wire whilst publicising the London Olympics and even rugby tackling a small Japanese boy to the ground made headline news because it was amusing and different from what the usual politician did.


 As such, Boris became the politician people could relate to. In the run-up to the 2015 General Election, Johnson acted as Cameron’s “star-player” in a bid to win the Northern vote. His unique style and image carried him into Westminster as the MP for Uxbridge and following the election he was the favoured candidate to succeed Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party.


However, all good things must come to an end. The meteoritic rise of Johnson suddenly came to a grinding halt in the most surprising of ways: he won. The spiritual leader of the Leave movement, following victory on the June the 23rd he was swept into high political office as Foreign Secretary. Whilst the politicians who he had long distanced himself from would see this as opportunity, Boris has in many ways hoisted himself by his own petard.


The uncovering and publication of an article he wrote in favour of staying in the EU proved to be the beginning of the end. His long-cultivated anti-political image was destroyed overnight and he became the politician who used the EU referendum to further his own career. To top it all off, Boris’ hopes of becoming Leader of the Conservative Party in a time of crisis were dashed by the actions of his one-time ally, Education Secretary Michael Gove.


Fast forward to the present and Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary, has become a shadow of the man he once was. The constant media scrutiny highlights his unsuitability for high-office. The court jester charms and buffoonery have not enabled him to disassociate himself from his utter failure to bring about Brexit and waylay the fears of citizens and migrants alike.


On the Andrew Marr show last Sunday, a fatigued and almost confused Johnson looked like he was out of tricks. Reminiscent of an 18th century bear-bate, his heavy and tired frame was made mincemeat of by the nimble and clever questions of Labour’s Keir Starmer. Resorting to shouting over his opponent on national television, the image Boris had spent nearly a decade creating was no more.


To turn back to the original question, the rise and fall of Boris Johnson tells us all we need to know of populism and the politicians who seek to use it for their own ends. Having become the vanguard for populism in British politics, Johnson’s decline can solely be attributed to Boris’ actions. There have always been differences between political promises and political reality- Johnson’s attempt to exempt himself from this rule proved ultimately to be his undoing. In the final test, he proved to the electorate and to the world that just like any other politician, he too was subject to the rules of the game.


His failure has been his undoing, and just like other populist movements across the world, the artifice he constructed soon collapsed when seriously challenged.


The lesson we can learn from this is that although populism in the West is far from over, it can be nothing more than a small blip. Politicians and political movements always promise more than they can deliver and it is only a matter of time before the electorate revert back to the conventional politicians who have long been the target of the populist.


Never to be the Leader he always wanted to be: Boris Johnson’s legacy will be the personification of populism.


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