Johnson v Trump – Divide and Rule

This is the third in a three-part series looking at the parallel perils of Trump and Johnson’s leaderships. Part one looked at how both leaders have handled the pandemic and part two examined their leadership styles and their common desire to deny debate. In the final part, Liz Price reviews their relationship with the law and the populist agenda.

As is clear from the previous two articles Johnson was intent on forcing through his agenda with as little scrutiny as possible. We should be clear that this democratic assault is not limited to Brexit.

Disregard for the judiciary

Following Johnson’s 2019 electoral victory, he returned to his enemy the Supreme Court and has declared he will initiate a review of the powers in a thinly veiled attack. The powers Johnson’s government seeks to curb are those of judicial review, which allow individuals to challenge the government on whether it has exceeded or abused its powers. In December 2020 Johnson’s government announced a review of the Human Rights Act.

Judicial review and the Human Rights Act are both crucial to making sure power is kept in check, because they give ordinary people the ability to challenge governments and public bodies in court if they get decisions wrong, or if their human rights are affected. It is thanks to judicial review that soldiers are owed a duty of care no matter where in the world they are stationed, all couples can enter civil partnerships and judicial review has helped some disabled people to defend their rights during the pandemic. The Human Rights Act protects our rights and freedoms. Any curbing of those rights threatens to give much greater power to the State.

An attempt to curb judicial oversight of government decisions threatens to give politicians too much power against individual. It should raise alarm bells in any constitutional democracy. 

Cronyism, electoral manipulation, bullying and fake news

Johnson is not interested in democracy, or transparency. We can see that in the multi-million-pound contracts awarded to cronies during the pandemic, the peerages given to donors, family members and friends of the Tory party, despite the Lords Appointments Committee stating objections, or in the gagging orders imposed on businesses to prevent them talking about the consequences of Brexit. The cronyism that we see corrupting UK contracts is also very much present in the award of medical supply contracts in the US. It is also present in the appointment of a Republican leaning judge to the US supreme court by Trump at the end of his term of office, despite the same people being on the record for giving entirely contrary advice when the tables were turned at the end of the Obama administration.

The suppression of democracy does not stop at cronyism, or appointments to the legislative chamber, Johnson’s government also wishes to change constituency boundaries which would favour their seat share, increase the ceiling on election spending, and curtail the powers of the independent Electoral Commission. Two of the members of the committee looking at the Electoral Commission – Craig MacKinlay and Karl McCartney – bear grudges against the Commission for being found guilty of falsifying expenses and electoral impropriety.

The Conservatives under Johnson are also attracted to the idea of requiring voters to produce ID in elections, despite there being no evidence of voter fraud. This directly follows the US example, where voter suppression of minority groups is a recognised problem. One has only to be reminded of the impact that the requirement to produce identity papers, otherwise not required by law, has had on many Windrush citizens to understand a little of the implication of this proposal.

As we witness the intent to erode rights and undermine democracy, we should be in no doubt that the conventions which form part of this country’s constitution are not safe in Johnson’s hands. Prepared to protect Priti Patel’s position as Home Secretary despite Parliamentary Standards advice that the allegations of bullying were accepted and that she should resign; prepared to allow Williamson to remain in post despite multiple catastrophic failures in education on his watch;  prepared not to stand by his own ambassador, whose advice raising alarm bells over the Trump administration had been leaked;  prepared to ignore the advice of the Lords Appointments Committee to push through his own friends, donor and family peerage appointments..  this administration has few democratic scruples that it would not cast aside to reward unquestioning loyalty and push through its own agenda.

The lies and the culture war are hallmarks of both Johnson’s government and Trump’s.  The Wellingborough Conservative newsletter explicitly tells its members to “openly lie” and to ape Donald Trump, and “weaponise fake news”. The government has taken to twitter to attack “activist lawyers” and to suggest that they were abusing the current legal system to prevent people from being returned to mainland Europe. This has not gone unnoticed internationally and has been condemned by the former UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. But once again, the government shows its disregard for the truth and the law, and its willingness to whip up its own base to encourage hatred and division. The Home Office admitted that the advert was wrong, but not before there were threats to lawyers, and an attack on a solicitor.

None of this is new

While it is clear why Johnson and his gang would now want to stress the differences between his leadership and Trump’s, it is in fact too late to do so. Johnson has shown his autocratic, populist and dishonest colours throughout his public life. He has used many of the same tactics as Trump, in whipping up his base and inciting division. But leaders don’t lead alone. They surround themselves with a team. Here again – we see leaders who require supine obedience. Johnson sacked everyone who did not sign up to his Brexit deal in 2019, and therefore ended up with a weak and inexperienced government. Trump has sacked everyone who disagrees with him during his term in office. Perhaps the only difference in their coming to power was that those who surrounded Trump might have thought they would have curbed his excesses. No one would claim the same of the Johnson acolytes.

In the end, Trump is left isolated, as the appeasers who have endured to this point finally realise the toxicity of his leadership, but at what cost to democracy? Emboldened by his base, he is not going easily. Those who appeased him in earlier days will not be forgotten. They knew who he was. They are as guilty as he for the culture war, the violence, the dishonesty and the deaths. It is the same for those who surround Johnson.

As we watch the events unfold in the US, we should be clear of the parallels. We knew Johnson before 2019. We knew him to be a liar and a “nasty piece of work”, just as we knew Trump. We have watched them both disrespect democracy from the moment they entered public life. History will judge them both, as it will judge those sycophants and appeasers who promoted and defended them, in full knowledge of their characters.

The narrative of betrayal, so central to both Trump and Johnson’s agenda, is the narrative of the mob. It has no place in a democratic country. Trump is going, but Johnson has another three years in which to dismantle our rights, our constitution and our democracy. Democracy can be destroyed just as easily through lies, division and a legislative programme intent on destroying democracy, as it can with the incitement to insurrection.

Never have we needed a vocal and united opposition more.