Is Boris Johnson a Populist? Dr Andy Knott’s reflects on the death of Conservatism

Populism: the death of Conservatism?

Andy Knott


How did the oldest party in Britain, the conservative party, come to embody right-wing populism? Is that all conservatism ever was, the polite face of a deeply unattractive right wing populism? There has never been a better time to pose this question after the Supreme Court’s judgment that the government had acted unlawfully.


Conservatism and populism normally take different approaches to the rule of law and the people. Liberal representative democracies, such as that in Britain, emphasise the representative role of the people through elections and referenda. Yet they uphold the rule of law as the means to guarantee the institutions and the processes through which the people can make a decision. Populists, in contrast, often claim to speak directly in the name of the people – and against those who would get in their way. The collision between traditional conservatism and right-wing populism, set in motion by Boris Johnson, was nowhere more apparent than in the Supreme Court’s unanimous condemnation of the government’s prorogation of parliament as ‘unlawful’. Conservatism has always emphasised respect for tradition, most notably the rule of law, and the (unwritten) constitution. For over three hundred years the Conservative Party claimed to embody law and order. The Supreme Court ruling shredded that claim.


The repercussions will haunt the Conservative party. No longer can the Tories claim that they are the natural party of law and order. Their government broke the law. This is far more significant than whether or not Boris Johnson defied drugs legislation by snorting cocaine. The highest Court in the land ruled that the leader of the oldest political party in the world, the Conservative Party, the prime minister and his Cabinet, broke the law. This is so unusual that the epithet historic does fit. Political commentators, constitutional historians and parliamentary experts can find no parallel case. This was, is, unprecedented.


The government received a short-term bounce at the polls after the decision. The Telegraph, The Sun, The Express and The Daily Mail portrayed the judiciary as part of the elite, once again using procedure to frustrate the democratic will of the people: ‘Unlawful? What’s Lawful About Denying 17.4m Brexit!’ one headline insisted. However, the long-term consequences for the erstwhile party of law and order are stark. Their political opponents will portray them as lawbreakers. They will do so for decades. Note for example how for a decade the Conservatives have characterised austerity: ‘We are clearing up Labour’s mess!’, ‘Labour crashed the economy; we are putting the house in order’. The Conservative Party, opponents will argue, knows no bounds to their privilege and entitlement. They break the law to get what they want, while slouching insouciantly through parliamentary debates. Our PM’s latest digression in refusing to sign the letter to the EU that complies with the Benn Act, while also sending an additional letter requesting that the EU ignores the first.


Many Conservative politicians view this high-risk strategy as fraught with danger. The impatience ‘to get on with it’, ‘to implement the people’s will and deliver Brexit’ stretches Conservatism’s steady-as-you-go credentials to breaking point. Quite apart from their differences with the executive over Brexit, Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, Phillip Lee, Amber Rudd and others are well aware that the party’s carefully honed presentation as respectable, normal and legal is in tatters.


Britain now has a government of rogues. The reported strategy of Dominic Cummings is to deepen the populist approach of pitting the people against the establishment – with either parliament or the judiciary serving as the enemy (or preferably both). Boris Johnson’s language is not quite so hard line. Since entering Downing Street he has refrained from invoking the people against the elite. This may be a recognition that his associations with the elite – Eton, the Bullingdon Club, The Telegraph, de Pfeffel, and so on – run deep and are immovable. Instead, he and his government have adopted the slightly more subtle approach of identifying parliament or, the judiciary, as the culprits who have frustrated the people’s will.  He may get his deal through parliament before October 31st, but if not he has prepared for it – those responsible will be punished at the polls, he contends.


Another classic distinction between populism and conservatism concerns their characterisation of the people. Conservatives claim always to have protected tradition in a joint project with their constituents, the silent majority, the people. The party conserves the past in order to preserve the future. It mediates a seamless bond between people and the elite. Populists breaks that bond. They declare that the elite have abandoned the people, that the elite act against the people.


‘Boris’ and his cronies are jeopardising the carefully nurtured assumption that conservatism forms a natural, compact unity with the people. This trope, the assumption that conservatives represent and articulate the common sense, is now shredded. Their recent leadership candidate, Rory Stewart, argues that the Conservatives are going through a ‘passing phase’. The worry for him and for ‘moderate’ One Nation Tories is that Johnson’s populist turn is more than a phase. There is a real risk that the enduring, carefully crafted tropes of Conservatism will not survive this populist onslaught. Conservatism and right-wing populism are uncomfortable bedfellows. The longer they cohabit, the more entrenched the connection becomes, the sooner will conservatism as we know it die.


Andy Knott is a contributor to and co-editor of the forthcoming The Populist Manifesto



Dissent and Debate in the Modern University

Understanding Contemporary Politics: Dissent, Debate and the University

Universities encourage dissent. Their premise is to criticise all established knowledge and all dominant conventions. Sometimes, caught up in the day-to-day activity of teaching, meeting, marking, talking and completing admin – we forget that simple premise. Here we generate new ideas; we encourage wild speculation; we challenge students to change the world. It is a dangerous privilege, central to all teaching and research, yet simultaneously a threat to everything we take for granted. It causes conflict – with University managers, with trade unions, with colleagues. Dissent, so integral to the very idea of a University, seeps seamlessly into every aspect of our working lives. We question our disciplines, how we teach, how we are managed, and research pushes us beyond what others accept. No authority is immune from that most horrible of questions: why? This Radical Futures blog – Understanding Contemporary Politics – holds no prisoners. In a world where old certainties have unravelled; where the distinction between truth and lies is impossible to police; where humans have destroyed the planet that fosters all life – no authority can limit the questions we pose to each other. During the next academic year, colleagues from around the University will write a weekly blog about the contemporary world. They will reflect on the political challenges we all face, present challenging ideas from their own research, and dare the University community to think again. In that critical, though friendly, spirit let me anticipate three of the questions we will pose – and invite others to participate in the conversations we will engender.


Environmental Emergency: The generations born in the four decades after World War 2 have destroyed the planet. Is Brighton University doing enough to address the climate emergency? It has committed to a zero carbon footprint by 2050, rather than 2030, the target set by the town council and demanded by environmental and climate experts. Is it right to delay the declaration of a climate emergency unlike 7000 HE institutions across the globe, including Sussex across the road? What responsibilities do you have? Should you stop flying, destroy your car, become a vegan and occupy bridges in London? Should you challenge our University to act more radically? What changes will you make to ensure that this happens? Should we ban all cars from the University and knock down the new car park on the Moulescoomb site? Perhaps the University strategy is prudent. It allows us to change the world in a considered manner. Is prudence a virtue, a form of practical wisdom? Perhaps prudence fiddles as the world burns?


Brexit: Does Brexit represent the democratic wishes of the British people or does it mark the end of Britain as a nation? Are those of us who oppose it a whinging academic elite, prone to scaremongering as we sit in the elitist ivory tower? Alternatively, was Brexit the consequence of years of racist scaremongering, by the political elite, by right wing newspapers, by those who inherited the mantle of Oswald Mosley? Is Brexit a symptom of the worst forms of populist politics? Perhaps populism is the boost democracy needs, an oxygen tank for the decrepit political system build by the generation that destroyed the planet. Was the Brexit referendum even democratic or was it the result of lies, of the manipulation of information, advertising and facts by our current Prime Minister?


Free Speech? Talking of Boris Johnson, are there limits to what we can say about him, to the ways we might insult his raffish, tousled insouciance? Should the University defend the right of anyone to speak even if they are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and bigoted? Would you be comfortable welcoming the Prime Minister to deliver a public lecture? There is no free speech in the world we live in. The powerful and the bigoted always get more airtime. If so, should the University refuse platforms to the bigots, those who bestride the political stage and use the language of offence popularised by Donald Trump? How far do we go with these policies? Perhaps we should boycott academics from all of those states that foster war, violence and conflict against minorities, and against civilians. The list is long – the US, the UK, Turkey, Indonesia, Israel, Russia, Syria, Hungary, Poland, Australia…in fact almost every country in the world. An academic boycott of the whole globe would fast-forward our commitment to achieving zero carbon emissions. Alternatively, do all bans and boycotts destroy the one space where we should debate everything, without limit?


Whatever your views, the decisions we make affect the lives of others – of colleagues, friends and families, of those we will never know, of future generations yet to be born.  This Understanding Contemporary Politics blog challenges us to question our own orthodoxies, to take nothing for granted, to test our University and our society with the withering force of dissent. It aims to do what Universities have always done – to ask fundamental questions before insisting upon easy answers; to reflect critically on the worlds we live in; to listen to others even as we make difficult decisions about how to live together.  For the rest of this academic year a blog will go live every Monday morning.

If you have something to say, if you want to think critically with your colleagues, then email the Radical Futures team on

Mark Devenney,

Radical Futures