Boris' colossal gamble

NASIM CHOWDHURY
Published 26.12.2019 01:43
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons in London after the State Opening Of Parliament, Dec. 19, 2019. AFP Photo
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons in London after the State Opening Of Parliament, Dec. 19, 2019. (AFP Photo)

The antics of Boris Johnson in his pursuit of power, especially during the final few days of the recent general election campaign in the U.K, brings the Turkish proverb "Yalancinin mumu yatsiya kadar yanar" (the liar's candle will only last till evening) firmly to mind. Assisted by a pliant media and a political establishment petrified of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour administration smashing the neo-liberal consensus that has existed in British politics for decades, Johnson lied, deceived and obfuscated his way to the finishing line. Any challenging media interview was dodged, with none of the ensuing outrage that would have occurred for previous prime ministers. Numbers were plucked out of thin air as he went along; schools, nurses, hospitals and pensioners were all given fantastic promises of cash which quickly evaporated as soon as he had left the scene. But it was too late, the story had already moved on, just as quickly as he had. Perhaps the scene that summed up his whole campaign best was when his bodyguard threw an expletive at a journalist who had had the audacity to ask Johnson a question, after which Johnson, seeing the chaos, walked off and hid in a refrigerator until the coast was clear. This was to be an apt metaphor for his whole campaign.

Despite the bumbling and blustering persona, Johnson had a very clear strategy: steer every question about the myriad of issues that the U.K. has onto the subject of the U.K.'s membership in the European Union and promise that if he was trusted with power he would deliver the Brexit that would fix every problem, large or small, that the U.K. faced. Nevermind the details; after all, it was he who was at the forefront of the campaign to leave the EU during the 2016 referendum campaign.

During that referendum campaign and for this election his senior strategist was Dominic Cummings. Just like then, this campaign was about one issue only. The Johnson-Cummings team won that referendum and they won this election, but the big difference is that in 2016, he did not assume power as a result. This time, he owns the mess. And what a mess it is.

What he has escaped from

The myriad of issues he avoided during the election will now be his responsibility. On the issue of Brexit, Johnson claimed that he had a deal with the EU that was "oven-ready," and that the only thing stopping him was this election, whereas the truth is that there are potentially years of negotiations ahead between the U.K. and the EU, as well as every other country that the post-EU United Kingdom will have to deal with. The weariness that the British people are feeling now because of the uncertainty that has followed the referendum in 2016 is nothing compared to the bitter experience, compounded by rising costs and falling standards of living, that awaits.

Economic growth, sluggish for the last decade, ground to a halt. Just days before the election, the worst three months for growth since 2009 were recorded.

The National Health Service, once the pride of post-war Britain and the envy of the world, is falling apart at the seams due to savage cuts in expenditure over the last decade. Patients are being treated on the floors of reception areas and waiting lists for operations are at record lengths with many patients dying before their turn arrives. To add insult to grievous injury, Johnson's great friend Donald Trump has his eyes on a deal which will open up the NHS to U.S. firms, allowing them to charge extortionate U.S.-style prices for what was once famous for being free of charge.

A record 2,000 food banks are now operating in the U.K. with close to three-quarters of them having opened up in the past five years. They do not just serve the homeless but an increasing number of nurses, teachers and other professionals who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet in an economy where real wages for public sector workers are lower than they were during the financial crash of 2008. The story of the last few years is not so much the rising unemployment for which previous Conservative administrations were famous for but rather the relatively high levels of people in work who are paid rock-bottom wages and are struggling to make ends meet. A highly skilled, low-waged workforce without the employment rights and protections that the EU guarantees would be something else that Trump would be eager to exploit.

Schools have huge numbers of pupils per class, broken roofs and dangerous classrooms with no money to repair them. Students graduating from university have record debts, with an increasing number who will never be able to repay them in their lifetime.

The environment locally and globally faces an impending crisis, reflected by the fact that the Green Party received a record 850,000 votes in the election, but nothing was mentioned on this key issue by Johnson's party.

As if this was not bad enough, we have what may well be the impending break-up of the centuries-old United Kingdom.

The Scotland case

In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won 48 out of 59 seats and it is interpreting this as yet another massive mandate for independence. This is aggravated by the fact that Scotland voted by an overwhelming 62% to remain in the EU in 2016 only to now be dragged out of it against its will.

Contrary to how many "national" media outlets have painted the scene, Scotland, despite not being fully sovereign, is a nation and not simply a region of the U.K.; in 1707, England signed the Act of Union that declares the people sovereign in the Nation of Scotland. After this election, the Conservative Party has one lone Scottish MP remaining. The Scottish people have resoundingly rejected Mr. Johnson's party and his manifesto which stated, clearly, that there is to be no new independence referendum in Scotland. We are now waiting to see how much respect the British government has for its own Act of Union.

Scotland has had a rocky relationship with London from the days of Margaret Thatcher but surely the situation now is beyond repair. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon's jubilation on election night, despite her knowing that the political and economic situation of Scotland will almost certainly get much worse in the short term, was because she knew she had achieved her ultimate aim. Johnson will now avoid the independence issue until it blows up in his face and he is forced to concede. He will inevitably do for Scotland what the nationalists could never have achieved on their own.

The other issue: The Irish Sea

Across the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland, another, and perhaps a more immediate, crisis looms. For the first time ever, Ulster elected more nationalist MPs than Unionist ones. This was due in large part to Johnson's Brexit deal including a hugely unpopular proposal for a "border in the Irish Sea," meaning in reality that Northern Ireland will maintain an EU-style "soft" border with the Irish Republic while having a de-facto trade border with the rest of the U.K. This is terrible news for the leavers, most of them unionists, who would have wanted Brexit to deliver a distancing from the former and a cementing of ties with the latter. With the Irish Republic's economy booming due to foreign investment – especially from the EU – and GDP per capita being more than double what it is in the North, the latter is completely dependent on trade, especially in the agricultural sector, with the former. Hence Johnson is fudging the issue of the border. Johnson's deal therefore effectively paves the way for Irish unity, something the Democratic Unionist Party, coalition partners in the former Conservative-led Parliament, had repeatedly warned against in the last Parliament and were ignored and then side-lined, causing them to withdraw support for the Conservative party and catalyzing the general election in the first place.

Ireland may in fact be reunited before Scotland gains independence as many EU states would have concerns about breakaway regions being allowed to join the EU and therefore block Scottish entry to their club, whereas Northern Ireland's move away from a state that has rejected the EU coupled with unification with a state that is already a member would be far easier to accept. It is now only a matter of time before demands of an independence referendum come from Ulster just as they did from Scotland. It is a bitter irony indeed that during the election campaign, Labour leader Corbyn was repeatedly smeared as being sympathetic in the past to the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Former members of that organization must now be rolling around in laughter at how this invention of Johnson would look when he himself hands on a plate what years of their armed struggle failed to achieve.

With Scotland and Northern Ireland gone, the U.K., a country that once ruled over an empire that covered almost a quarter of the earth, would be reduced to being an impoverished England and Wales.

And if that was not bad enough, there is Johnson's destruction of his own Conservative party, the democratic world's oldest and arguably most successful. The U.K.'s inequitable "first past the post" electoral system gave the Conservatives what the media described as a landslide victory of 78 seats, but the statistics are misleading: The Conservatives only gained around 330,000 more votes than at the last election two years ago, where they failed to get a majority, and the last two governments, elected with similar majorities to this (66 and 91) in 2005 and 1966, both lost the next elections in 2010 and 1970.

And while the victory was widely reported as an impressive one, two important factors need to be considered – firstly, it only came about after the purge of the moderate One Nation faction of the party that has ensured, since World War II, that the party maintains a balance between the Welfare State and the market-driven economy. In fact, it was under One Nation Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in January 1973 that Britain joined what was then the EEC. Secondly, at the beginning of the election campaign when the Conservative Party had far less of a lead in the polls, Trump suggested that Johnson and the leader of the far-right Brexit party led by Nigel Farage work together to ensure Johnson wins and Brexit gets done, to which both men duly complied with the latter withdrawing all his candidates from any seats in which the Conservatives were standing. Therefore, what was reported as a "stonking majority" and a "barnstorming performance" of Johnson is better described as a deceitful stunt typical of his short-termism.

The Conservative change

The Conservative Party has historically been a broad church whose leaders may have on occasion pandered to the right of their party for political gain, but they have always been cognizant of the right's appetite for destruction and therefore relied upon the center for the stability and durability that has ensured the party's long-term political survival. It was the right of the party, and on the same issue of Europe, that destroyed an otherwise successful prime minister in John Major, and it was to appease right-wing backbench MPs that David Cameron decided to hold a referendum on EU membership in 2016, in order to "put the matter to bed," which of course resulted in defeat and resignation for him. His successor May called an unnecessary election in order to increase her parliamentary majority to dilute the effect of dissidents from within her party and expedite the Brexit process. But she failed in her endeavor as well. Johnson's purge has not only allowed the right of his party to run rampage but in addition to that, he has also formed a de-facto alliance with a party even further to the right that has been allowed free reign by the political establishment in the U.K. and the media to set the terms of debate in the whole Brexit saga. Johnson may have succeeded for now, but none of us should be surprised if this pact with the devil rapidly unravels as the true complexity of withdrawal from the EU and its political, economic and legal ramifications are laid bare and he meets the same fate as that of his predecessors.

Labour's intense campaign

Bearing in mind the domestic issues Johnson faces, his position looks even shakier when we consider that the opposition Labour Party's election campaign focused intensely on the chronic issues the U.K. faces, exposing the state of the nation's schools, hospitals, transport infrastructure, low wages, poverty and homelessness. The Labour's election manifesto had radical solutions for all of these issues and despite a hostile media, including from centrist platforms that have traditionally supported the party, the party received almost one-third of the popular vote – something hitherto unimaginable for such an anti-establishment and anti-status quo agenda. With the problems highlighted in the campaign only becoming worse in the coming weeks and months, perhaps history will judge Corbyn's radical manifesto as the last chance the U.K. had to fix its broken society and remain intact communally as well as politically. A point to note here is that in this election, the "change" candidate had a vastly more socially cohesive message while the establishment's favorite had an agenda that may eventually bring it down.

The hatred problem is real

The issue of the growing racism and Islamophobia in the U.K. was also evaded by Johnson and his team during this election – which should not be a surprise considering that Johnson's own contribution to the problem is well-known – but now that the election is over, this becomes another problem he owns. Due to public outcry on this matter, members of Johnson's own Cabinet have previously called for a formal inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, and we now wait to see if this is yet another empty promise designed to get the party over the election hurdle or if it has any substance to it. If such an inquiry is forthcoming it will be interesting to see if it has anything to say about Johnson's own derogatory marks about Muslims, and especially Muslim women, which may have helped him gain some of the votes he needed to win power, while he has only increased the pressure on an already strained Muslim community.

The U.K. has, therefore, had a watershed moment. An obedient media made sure Johnson did not face any serious scrutiny on his path to power, but will they be able to cover up his forthcoming failures? As society breaks down, surely this will be too much of a task for them, especially when people are still able to express their discontent via social media. Perhaps the new norm in the U.K. will be civil strife, just as we are seeing in France and have witnessed to a lesser extent in London in 2011.

As in our Turkish proverb, which describes the predicament of the liar as his candle runs out just as evening falls, Johnson's lies could very well become unraveled at the very moment when he needs to be trusted the most, thereby engulfing himself as well as the whole nation in darkness.

* London-based researcher and strategist specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic Affairs

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