London party

Dyer: Seeds sown for Boris Johnson’s return as UK PM

As a child, outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly said he wanted to be “king of the world”.

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As a child, outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly said he wanted to be “king of the world”. He found himself in a slightly more humble role, was shunned by MPs in his own party for his lies, corruption and incompetence, and will hand over to his successor, Liz Truss, on Monday. But the Fat Lady still hasn’t sung.

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“I think Boris will come back,” said a random interviewee on the street. “It’s going to be like (Donald) Trump in America.” British voters might not be that stupid, you think, but Boris thinks they are. His strategy calls for electoral disaster for his own Conservative Party in the next election, but why would he care?

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He accidentally set the stage for this strategy already by purging his party of most of its senior members for not being enthusiastic enough about Brexit. That left only second and third raters like Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to compete for succession, and neither of them seem remotely ready for the coming storm.

Even without the energy crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a victory for the conservatives in the next election seemed unlikely. The party will then have been in power for fourteen years, and it has very little to show, except for the mounting economic damage caused by its exit from the European Union.

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Relentless budget cuts have brought the National Health Service to the brink of collapse, with wait times to see a doctor or have surgery at historic levels. Whatever credit the party has earned for rapidly rolling out COVID vaccines has long since run out, and the long decline in working-class incomes is finally sparking a wave of strikes.

This was all happening even before the war in Ukraine, but it has supercharged public anxiety. The effective cut off of Russian gas supply has led to a huge increase in energy prices throughout the European Union, but at least EU countries are protecting their poorest citizens from the acute crisis in the cost of the life that will happen this winter.

Liz Truss, already the clear winner of the intra-party election whose result will be announced on Monday, refused to propose measures to cushion the shock of energy prices which have already doubled and will quintuple by next spring ( apart from the tax cuts which will mainly benefit the rich).

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“No donations,” says Truss, true to the far-right ideology she adopted to win support within the party. The reality of being Prime Minister in a country where half the people have to choose between eating and heating this winter will force her to turn around soon enough, but not before she has convinced a large part of the public that the Tories are Wrong.

Boris Johnson agrees with this because his bid to return as party leader can only work if Truss is sacked for losing the election. Even then, it’s not guaranteed, but he can hope that the current party rules, which give the final choice to 160,000 Conservative Party activists, almost all of them old, white, non-urban and upper-middle class , will serve him well.

In the meantime, all he has to do is cling to his seat in parliament, so he’s available when his desperate party turns to him again after he was kicked out of office by a landslide vote (he hopes) in 2024, or possibly sooner. He has barely bothered to show up for work since he was forced to resign three months ago and had to remain caretaker prime minister.

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Can his plan work? It is not inconceivable. After all, other gonzo populists like Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, his spiritual brothers, have made a comeback or seem well placed to do so.

The three men have a lot in common. They all led populist coalitions that attempted to combine the super-rich with the angry petty bourgeoisie and downward mobility, which forced them to make conflicting promises to the two groups. And, they all masked this gap with endless culture wars against minorities, immigrants, “liberal elite”, etc.

It is a government by chaos, but in the right hands it has power nonetheless. In the hands of Boris Johnson, maybe not.

Consider the contrast between Trump, who still controls the Republican Party despite a failed coup attempt, and Johnson, whose most conservative MPs are embarrassed by his comeback ambitions.

“I would walk on hot coals to stop this,” a former senior minister told the Independent. “I think a lot of us would try to kamikaze that. The guy must recognize that he succeeded.

Gwynne Dyer is a freelance journalist based in London, England

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