The End of Boris Johnson Is Not the End of U.K. Populism
The Conservative Party will remain more populist, but it won't be as bad as MAGA
The fall of Boris Johnson and his resignation as U.K. prime minister and leader of the U.K.’s Conservative Party was directly due to his personal failings—one scandal and one set of lies too many. The tipping point came when Johnson acknowledged, despite previous denials by his spokesmen, that he had known of a prior allegation of sexual misconduct against Conservative Party Deputy Whip Chris Pincher, who had resigned at the end of June following his alleged groping of two men at a dinner in a private club. Johnson’s admission led to the rapid resignation of five of his ministers and over 50 members of his government in all—an avalanche primed by an accumulation of prior scandals. These included his government’s boozy, illegal parties at Downing Street during the coronavirus lockdowns and his failure to report major political donations.
Much can be said about Johnson’s character, about how his personal lack of seriousness exemplifies the merging of politics and media in contemporary Britain, and about how his toppling shows the difficulty of repeatedly flouting the powerful collegial traditions of Westminster. But these are not what we should focus on. Johnson’s short and eventful premiership was a key stage in two connected historical processes: the increasing subordination of economic issues to cultural divisions over identity and nationalism, and the stubborn resistance to this realignment by powerful forces in British society.
This conflict, presently on display in the Conservative Party, will most likely lead in coming years to a moderately populist Conservative Party and a more cosmopolitan, progressive Labour Party. While both parties will pose difficulties for limited-government classical liberals, these new alignments in response to Britain’s Brexit-inspired populism will be better for the country than an independent populist party acting as a free radical in the body politic. They will also be less dangerous than the populist situations in the United States and in several Continental countries, such as France and Italy.
The U.K.’s current political dynamics trace back to the remarkable events of 2019, when Johnson’s Conservative Party dominated the field in Britain’s parliamentary elections. In gaining that victory, Johnson took advantage of the rise of identity politics, especially the nationalist variety on the conservative side, and the consequent weakening of party loyalties. He assumed a strong nationalist, pro-Brexit stand and shifted his party’s economic policies leftward into industrial policies devised to benefit old manufacturing areas. This appealed not just to unaligned populist Brexit voters, but to traditional working-class Labour voters with nationalist sensibilities and leftist economic views that had previously clashed with the free-market values of the Margaret Thatcher-era Conservative Party. These Labourites were ripe for picking, having become increasingly alienated from the cultural liberalism of the Labour Party under the earlier leadership of Tony Blair. As a result, conservatives racked up wins in traditional Labour constituencies in the North and the Midlands, including some areas they hadn’t won in more than one hundred years.
Remarkably, the party held its customary seats, too. More-liberal Tory voters who disliked Johnson’s move to nationalism and economic interventionism remained loyal out of fear of Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, a self-described socialist who advocated the renationalization of railways and utilities, higher income taxes, large increases in social spending and a noninterventionist foreign policy. His Bernie Sanders-style charisma and policies didn’t jibe with Tory instincts, and many people—including working-class voters who shared his economic views—were alienated by his radical foreign policy beliefs, which they saw as unpatriotic. Johnson was lucky in his political opposition.
The Tory Party’s Broad, Contradictory and Unsustainable Coalition
Hence, the triumphant Conservative Party of 2019 was imposingly—and ponderously—broad. It housed an uneasy coalition of three kinds of voters.
The first were pro-Brexit Thatcherites who melded opposition to “wokeness,” free-market economics and Thatcher’s latter-career skepticism of the European Union, rather than her support for the Single European Market, with its harmonized regulatory regime. The second were cosmopolitan in outlook, rejecting things like Brexit or at least the hard form it took, while embracing an economic and social liberalism that reflected less of the party’s free-market Thatcherite views and more of its focus on fiscal prudence under David Cameron. (Cameron was the Conservative Party prime minister who called the 2016 Brexit referendum and later resigned when British voters narrowly voted against his recommendation to stay in the EU.) The third were strongly pro-Brexit populist voters who combined nationalism and social conservatism with interventionist economics, such as the “levelling up” industrial policies that Johnson espoused during his tenure.
This tripartite coalition has proved unsustainable. Indeed, as this Parliament wore on, two things became clear. The first was that with Jeremy Corbyn’s 2020 resignation as Labour Party leader and the Conservative Party’s increasingly heated “anti-woke” rhetoric, Cameronite voters were now deeply disenchanted with the party and leaned towards the Liberal Democrats, a socially liberal centrist party that opposes Brexit and favors a relatively open economy. The alienation of these Cameronite voters, who are largely concentrated in the country’s suburban Southeast and places like Oxford and Cambridge, has led to Liberal Democrat victories in recent by-elections and increasingly spooked Southern Conservative MPs, who see their seats at risk.
Simultaneously, it became obvious that many Conservative MPs were deeply unhappy with Johnson’s move away from the Thatcherite positions of low taxes and free-market economics (and even the amended Thatcherism of David Cameron) toward a more interventionist economic stance intended to appeal to voters in the so-called “Red Wall” Northern seats the party had gained in 2019. Like the Cameronites, the Thatcherites were uncomfortable with the party’s new direction under Johnson, despite its electoral success.
This shared frustration might suggest a revived Cameronite-Thatcherite alliance that pushes the Brexit-driven populists out of the Conservative Party. Yet the Thatcherites and populists share a deep passion for Brexit and for nationalist identity politics.
In contrast, the Cameronites and the party’s new populist wing are broadly incompatible. Thus, the party’s Thatcherites will have to decide which group to retain: their populist pro-Brexit comrades-in-arms, or their legacy Cameronite allies. This fundamental dynamic isn’t affected by the fall of Boris Johnson, and his successor will be forced to face the issue.
Whither the Tory Leadership Post-Johnson?
Two possible successors to Johnson as party leader—and therefore prime minister—have emerged since his resignation. One is Rishi Sunak, a 42-year-old MP of Indian descent who, despite having supported Brexit, largely represents the party’s fiscally prudent and socially liberal Cameronite wing. Prior to his election to Parliament in 2015, Sunak had a successful career in international finance, and his role as Johnson’s chancellor of the exchequer made him seem Johnson’s natural heir. This changed when Sunak fell out with Johnson over tax policy and a subsequent controversy over Sunak’s wife’s tax affairs. Sunak became one of the first two ministers to resign in protest over Johnson’s role in the Pincher scandal, helping precipitate Johnson’s fall. Johnson is now said to oppose him, but he remains a viable candidate for party leader. Sunak’s success in a Conservative Party characterized by nationalist views is a reminder that in Britain, “nationalism” is a cultural phenomenon, not a racial one, something similarly apparent in the initial Conservative leadership campaign, where more than half of the original candidates were from ethnic minorities.
The second candidate for party leader is Liz Truss, currently foreign secretary. She has recently been prominent in the U.K.’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Having entered Parliament in 2010, Truss models herself as a modern-day Margaret Thatcher, and she talks freely of cutting taxes, unlike Sunak, who points first to curbing inflation. Despite having originally opposed Brexit, Truss has signed onto the Thatcherites’ nationalist, pro-Brexit goals, and she has been involved in recent U.K. negotiations with the European Union. According to polls, she has a clear edge in the race for party leader with the party’s grassroots, whose mail-in votes will be tallied in early September to determine Johnson’s successor as party leader and prime minister.
But whoever gets elected, the populist conundrum for the Conservative Party remains. This is most conspicuous in the hard question of whether to repeal the “Northern Ireland Protocol,” a messy legacy of earlier U.K. and EU Brexit negotiations. The protocol was designed to retain an open and peaceful border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the sovereign Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU. In this sense, it has succeeded, but under the protocol, even goods imported from the rest of the U.K. and consumed in Northern Ireland must comply with EU trade regulations, while key U.K. tax and subsidy policies in Northern Ireland must hew to EU guidelines. Northern Ireland remains in the EU Single Market area while the rest of the U.K. does not.
The protocol has kept the peace with the EU by preventing cross-border regulatory evasions, but it has compromised U.K. policy sovereignty and created a de facto trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. The Conservative Party’s populist and Thatcherite wings are keen to repeal these elements of the protocol through an act of Parliament, while the Cameronites blanch at unilaterally modifying an accord that carries the force of international law and took effect only last year. Understandably, they fear a trade war.
If Sunak is elected prime minister, he will probably withdraw the bill repealing the protocol. This, however, would enrage the populist and Thatcherite wings, straining his control over the party and weakening his government. If Truss is elected, on the other hand, she will be keen to push the bill forward. As things stand, however, she doesn’t appear to have the votes necessary to pass the bill unless she makes its passage a vote of confidence in the government. This might just get her the votes, since MPs queasy over repeal of the protocol will also be queasy over facing another election if the bill should fail. But strongarming MPs into ratification would likely lead to resignations of her Cameronite ministers and a long-term loss of Cameronite members and voters.
A new Tory leader tempted to delay an internal showdown faces another risk: losing two of the party’s three factions. The party is already hemorrhaging Cameronite voters, who are fiscally prudent moderate globalists, and as time passes, there remains a distinct chance that a new populist party or the avowedly populist Reform Party—the name given to Brexit champion Nigel Farage’s party nowadays—may swoop in to snatch up the Tories’ populist voters. Although the Reform Party would have to move leftwards on economics to accomplish this on a large scale, even now it may lure away enough voters in Northern seats that the Conservatives lose them.
A ‘Moderately’ Populist Conservative Party
The tensions described above and the current political passions over Brexit tend toward the same outcome: an exodus of the Tories’ Cameronite voters and an alliance between the populists and Thatcherites in a somewhat smaller, more sustainable Conservative Party. True, other outcomes are possible: The Tory donor class would prefer a re-alliance between the Cameronites and Thatcherites; they assisted the fall of Boris Johnson to facilitate that. But a Thatcherite-populist union seems more likely, and it’s consistent with the shift seen throughout Western societies toward prioritizing cultural identity over economic concerns.
The timing of the party’s reconstitution is less clear. It may be forged in the months to come, driven by the pressures the party already faces, or it may happen later, after a Conservative government’s defeat at a general election under Sunak or Truss due to the party’s internal tensions and a loss of voters in at least one or possibly two directions.
But either way, the result will not be your father’s Conservative Party. Admittedly, the deep hold Margaret Thatcher’s legacy has continued to exert on the party has been surprising and impressive; her torchbearers stubbornly resisted Boris Johnson’s new leftward economic direction despite the electoral success he brought the party in 2019.
Nevertheless, if a Thatcherite like Truss were to reassert a kind of old-school Conservative orthodoxy on taxes and small government and thereby delight some of the party’s (aging and shrinking) core vote, she would alienate the new populist and nationalist Labour voters the party gained in 2019—voters on whose continued loyalty the party’s future electoral success depends. She would also be doing nothing to regain the support of Cameronite suburban and metropolitan middle-class voters put off by Brexit and the party’s increasingly strident nationalism and culture war rhetoric.
Political reality dictates a long-term compromise: a moderately populist Conservative Party with a new blend of Thatcherite and populist policies. This party would probably support a more active and interventionist state in pursuit of populist economic causes, but also a state that spends a lot less money due to governmental structural reforms, as opposed to austerity. Such a Tory party may also try to establish closer economic connections with such countries as India and Africa, while reducing the importance of economic links with continental Europe.
Culturally, the party’s positions and rhetoric would remain populist, but relatively moderate in that they wouldn’t be as fully developed or articulated as those of stand-alone populist parties in Poland, France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The result would be, for instance, hostility to immigration, but without an explicitly ethnic notion of identity; industrial strategies, but without full protectionism; and anti-wokism, but without an explicitly antiliberal or postliberal foundation arguing—à la Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—that “woke” ideas are the inevitable endpoint of the U.K.’s liberal heritage.
Whither Labour and Liberalism?
Clearly, such party positions wouldn’t be classical liberalism. Still, from a classically liberal point of view, a moderately populist Tory party is probably preferable to an independent, full-fledged populist party. An explicitly populist party with both a significant representation in Parliament—say, 30 to 40 seats out of 650—and a fully developed ideology would inflame Britain’s culture wars significantly. It would risk social and political instability.
That said, the absence of an articulated populism espoused by a purely populist party could present liberals with less incentive to develop a robust articulation of an opposing ideal. This raises the question of what will emerge to resist populist conservatism.
As mentioned above, the Liberal Democrats have already siphoned votes from the Conservative Party, and this process looks set to continue through the next election and beyond. Another obvious—and more likely—source of opposition to conservative politics is the Labour Party, but it, too, will be forced to recreate itself in light of the post-Brexit populist impulse in British politics. Any electoral success it is now enjoying is due to the troubles of the Conservative Party, not to voter enthusiasm for its own offerings under Sir Keir Starmer, the party’s leader since 2020. Starmer’s current attempt to revive an economic program resembling those of former Labour leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is unlikely to survive the next election.
So what will Labour look like in a politically realigned future? Having lost much of its traditional, nationalist base, it will likely cater more directly to its other major audience: younger, well educated, cosmopolitan voters opposed to Brexit and interested in liberal cultural causes, such as gay, trans and abortion rights. These voters also welcome immigration, but they have a foggier connection to classical leftist economics, so the party will likely move to a strongly “green” and redistributionist economic agenda without demands for extensive state ownership and control. The party will probably retain its longstanding affinity for unions, however, and it will likely champion the liberal trade policies that U.K. unions favor, with a focus on reestablishing trade connections with continental Europe.
In effect, the U.K.’s two major parties will probably remain a congeries of liberal and illiberal elements, but the U.K.’s populist movement will likely be more dispiriting than destabilizing. Both parties remain under the control of Britain’s relatively small and cohesive political class, and there is no British equivalent to the U.S. primary system that would allow a reckless populist like Donald Trump to seize control of the party apparatus. Boris Johnson, after all, may have flouted Westminster’s political conventions, but when the jig was up, he didn’t ask his supporters to lay siege to the House of Commons. Instead, he resigned, and now the conservative-populist movement he tried to lead will move on without him—and without a more dangerous populist alternative in sight.