The hard right like to disable opponents with outrageous rhetoric while they re-order the political landscape
BORIS JOHNSON has stoked horror on the benches of the re-convened Commons by insulting the memory of murdered MP, Jo Cox.
Instead of subjecting Johnson to a barrage of scrutiny for his illegal prorogation of parliament, the Commons spent its first two days back arguing about inappropriate language.
And in this way defeat was snatched from the jaws of the courtroom victory. Confusion reigns in the country; nobody understands why the parliament sits at all, pledged as it is to do nothing but obstruct Johnson.
In this climate, the government is straining every ‘anti-political’ sinew, eyeing a ‘people vs parliament’ election.
Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, repeatedly refers to a “dead parliament” doing nothing but getting in the way of Brexit. Johnson’s government constantly calls on opposition parties to go for a general election to end the parliamentary stalemate.
The opposition’s continual refusal provides the appearance of a political force lacking the courage of its convictions and scared of the public.
To complete the effect, Johnson will now regularly incite an angered and emotional response from opposition MPs and parts of the media.
There are two outcomes that can be hoped for from this kind of behaviour. First that MPs become defensive and insular, thus confirming the public image of them as self-indulgent and self-serving. And second that their politics is reduced to the expression of outrage and grievance, politically muting them.
The US case study
Trump played this tactic at a professional level. His constant outbursts of racism, misogyny and simple obnoxiousness converted the entire liberal media and political scene into a circus of acrimony, that built huge audiences for daily doses of outrage. Some social scientists have even asserted that during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, some audiences became addicted to his daily antics.
Clinton fell into his sewer. Almost her entire campaign became a response to the phenomenon of Trump.
The proof is in the recollection. By the end of the campaign the whole world knew that Trump wanted to build a wall, ban Muslims from entering the country, and enter into some kind of nationalist economic policy.
By the end of the same campaign, almost nobody could name a Clinton policy. She was simply ‘not Trump’.
While American liberals wound themselves in knots over Trump’s assault on decency, Trump was hammering home a political vision for the future of the country.
A vision of change
Political forces opposed to Johnson face a clear choice. Engage in an endless tête-à-tête with a man who has little by way of substantial policy direction for the country – that is, fight him on his chosen terrain. Or, shift the fight to his positions of greatest weakness – housing, education, foreign policy, banking reform and the environment.
This does not require turning a blind eye to racism or authoritarianism. Indeed, Johnson has been humiliated whenever his comments about Muslims have been presented to him. But shining a torchlight on Johnson’s frequent prejudicial comments is not the same thing as reacting to a media treadmill that is addicted to sensationalism.
The danger is that, intellectually threadbare though British conservatism has become, Johnson is the only person currently proposing a straightforward argument about how to progress the country. The Labour party, which has just adopted an incredibly radical and innovative policy agenda at its conference, is swamped in parliamentary tactics which are in danger of associating it with the institutions of a discredited British establishment.
Much the same could be said of the SNP, whose flagship proposal of independence has similarly been subsumed, at least for now, in a defense of a parliament few in Scotland feel very much attachment to.
The good news for opponents of the Tories is Johnson isn’t some strategic genius; he isn’t playing 4D chess. Indeed, by the standards of the authoritarian figures mentioned in this article, he is slipshod, incompetent and lacking in serious momentum.
But those in the opposition who have a real political vision to offer must do so. Because without that, this tactic works.