Boris Johnson called an election in December 2019. At the time government, parliament, and UK politics in general was log-jammed by the Brexit issue. Unable to move forward towards Brexit or back towards another referendum on remaining in the EU, Johnson cast the election in terms of pitching “the people” against parliament, causing some to see this as a populist election. Parliament was portrayed as divided, divisive and as an institution blocking Brexit. In contrast, the 2016 referendum result was portrayed as the ‘will of the people’ and it was this that had to be implemented. Johnson intoned repeatedly for the electorate to replace the parliament with a new set of MPs that could enable his government to “Get Brexit done”. In the end, the result of the election was to provide Johnson with a huge majority and the means to secure the UK’s exit from the EU at the end of January 2020.
For many the original Brexit decision of the referendum in 2016 was a spasm of populism in UK politics, either as part of wider trend from US President Donald Trump to far-right Italian leader Matteo Salvini, or as a singular peculiar moment in British politics. The 2019 general election pitching people against parliament therefore looks like the culmination of this populist moment. But in practice Brexit has been a Conservative Party project. From the rebellions over Maastricht in the early 1990s, through to the Bloomberg speech commitment of James Cameron to hold a membership referendum to the leadership of Johnson and Gove of the Leave campaign and now to the Johnson’s government, the engine room and the drivers of Brexit have come from the Conservative Party.
Populism has played a role in Brexit in two ways. First, the phenomenon of UKIP/Brexit Party and the person of Nigel Farage have acted as a right-wing populist force in UK politics. The challenge of UKIP clearly played an important role in shaping the politics of the Conservative Party and its decisions on EU policy and membership. But it was the decisions and the conflicts within the Conservative Party that shaped the turn of events.
The second way in which populism has played a role is in the way populist tropes have been used by some Brexiters and Conservative Party and in the campaign of Johnson in 2019. The anti-institutionalism of populism is present in the opposition to parliament. Using the people as a rallying point has been clearly in the reference to the ‘will of the people’. And in the punchy three-word slogans that have defined the successful sides in the 2016 referendum and 2019 election campaigns (“Take back control”, “Get Brexit done”) we have punchy populist-type appeals short in form but wide in scope, hoovering up grievances to mobilise support.
The real strength of populism lies not in its appeal to the people against establishment elites. The power of populism comes in its appeal to a sense of distaste from politics. There was clearly a lot of that in the voting for Brexit and support for the Johnson Conservative campaign. But the path to Brexit has been laid by a Conservative Party and this is a party whose appeal has not been to those ambivalent about politics but has been on the basis of its political effectiveness.
The difficulties of the three years following the referendum were the result of choices of the Conservative Party under Theresa May in how Brexit was framed and in calling an ill-timed election and running a poor election campaign that lost the Conservatives their majority. The party seemed to have lost its political mojo. The actions of Johnson in calling and framing the 2019 general election appear to have had the opposite effect and have moved the UK toward EU withdrawal and to have initiated the period of transition under which the future economic relationship with the EU and with other countries will be negotiated. The tropes of populism are no longer needed.
Looking to the next stages, there can be little doubt that the negotiations will be complex and difficult and there is presently much scepticism that these can be completed by the end of 2020, which Johnson has pledged to do. But whatever the vicissitudes of the transition period, it seems clear that the fox of UKIP/Brexit Party/Farage has been shot for time being. With no MPs and with Brexit seemingly unstoppable, the means and the raison d’etre of the populists in UK politics look to have largely dissipated. There is currently no populist actor in a position to drive the Conservative Party’s decisions on Brexit.
Johnson and his government were never populist. They might have used some tropes and tactics of populists but at the heart of the engine room of Brexit, the Conservative Party is a party that is fundamentally at ease with establishment, adept at appeals to ‘the people’, and based on a core appeal about its political competence and comfort levels. With the transition phase about to commence under a Conservative government with an unassailable parliamentary majority, understanding the next months mean understanding the party that has created, developed and deliver Brexit.
Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics and Jean Monnet Chair, Director of the Sussex European Institute