After Boris Johnson won the Conservative party contest in July to succeed Theresa May as Britain’s prime minister, U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed his victory, praising him as "Britain Trump."
Since entering Downing Street, Johnson seems to be paying the American leader the highest form of flattery by imitating Trump’s political and media tactics, echoing his populist campaign memes and embracing political disruption as a key tactic to wrong-foot opponents, galvanize core supporters and maneuver Britain out of the European Union, which May failed to do.
But Britain isn’t the United States. Will adopting Trump-like behavior backfire on Johnson?
Critics accuse Johnson of slipping away from constitutionality and trying to relocate the Conservative party on the populist right, a wrenching maneuver that has triggered a conflict within the party between the its pro-EU and Brexit wings.
Loyalists say these are not normal times in Britain and so the unconventional is needed. They argue Johnson’s abrasive strategy — which has included threats to defy the law, which he repeated Monday — will work to his favor as his hardline Brexit stance will ensure he secures the backing of 35 percent of the electorate in an election which is likely weeks away — a large enough share of the vote to gain him a pro-Brexit majority in the House of Commons.
Even before becoming prime minister, Johnson mused at a private dinner with Conservative colleagues, where they discussed how to break the deadlock over Brexit, that a “bloody hard” Trump-style approach might be the best approach.
“Imagine Donald Trump doing Brexit,” Johnson said, according to an audio recording. “He’d go in bloody hard. There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.”
And in the last few weeks, Johnson has been testing the idea, tearing up the conventional political playbook, in much the same way as Trump, all in a bid to ride a populist wave to reshape his country’s politics, remake his party and be the prime minister who manages to lead Britain out of the EU.
Last week, Johnson expelled 21 moderate stalwarts from the Conservative party, including the grandson of Winston Churchill, for defying the government’s Brexit policy. The move prompted a stinging rebuke from former Conservative leader and ex-Prime Minister John Major, who dubbed Johnson’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, a “political anarchist,” and warned Saturday that the party purge and Johnson’s slash-and-burn politics risk transforming the Conservatives from a “broad-based national party” into a sect.
The 47-year-old Cummings, a controversial figure who has been compared to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, was the chief strategist for the Brexit campaign during the 2016 referendum on EU membership. Cummings has made no secret of his wish to rip up the map of British politics, starting with a populist remake of the Conservative party.
On Friday, he told government advisors that they should hold their nerve, saying if they thought last week was chaotic, which saw lawmakers grab control of the parliamentary timetable from the government, they should realize it was “only just the beginning.”
The tumultuous week also saw Johnson indicate he was ready to defy parliament and break the law, if lawmakers, as they did, pass legislation delaying Brexit. The legislation received Queen Elizabeth's formal assent Monday.
Lawmakers took the action in the wake of Johnson’s decision to prorogue (suspend) the legislature for an unconventionally prolonged period, a gambit his critics say was aimed at preventing MPs from blocking a “no-deal” Brexit in which Britain would exit the EU without an agreement with Brussels.
In a move seen as highly Trump-like, Johnson, after the legislation cleared parliament, used police cadets in West Yorkshire as a backdrop for a charged political speech, breaching the convention of not drawing the police into partisan politics. The move drew a rebuke from the local chief constable, who said the force had agreed to host the prime minister on the understanding that the speech would be in connection to a police recruitment drive and eschew partisan party politics.
Critics said there were clear similarities between the event and a speech Trump gave in August 2017 with trainee police officers also used as a backdrop.
“Boris Johnson copies his mentor & hero Donald Trump by making highly political speech using young police officers as a backdrop!,” tweeted Labor lawmaker Barry Sheerman.
But will the copying payoff? Political commentator Matthew d’Ancona notes that Johnson is rising in the opinion polls with the Conservatives ahead of their nearest rivals, Labor, by 14 percent, proving that the electorate outside the Westminster bubble may be taking a very different view from the prime minister’s critics.
“After three years of [Brexit] dither and delay, it is not hard to image a measure of public sympathy with Johnson’s contempt for convention: his suspension of parliament, his purges, his readiness to break the law. We are undoubtedly living through a populist moment, marked by a high degree of public frustration with representative democracy, its flummery and procrastinations,” d’Ancona wrote in Monday’s The Guardian newspaper.
He remains unsure if the slash-and-burn tactics will succeed and questions whether Johnson and Cummings are “courting strategic disaster” by “wrecking the Conservative party at astonishing speed” and turning it into “a single-issue campaign group” only concerned with Brexit.
Others highlight how despite the high-stakes maneuvers, Johnson and his team have failed to pull off immediate tactical goals and only succeeded so far in uniting squabbling opposition parties to block Johnson from taking Britain out of the EU without a deal and even his bid to hold a snap election this month. They argue the prime minister has boxed himself in, lost his thin majority in the House of Commons through defections and expulsions and is now virtually powerless and imprisoned in Downing Street.
Johnson's supporters say all that will play to his favor once the opposition parties lift their block on holding an election and that the only viable strategy for him is to lash the Conservatives to the Brexit mast. Otherwise they will see anti-EU voters leave in droves for the newly-minted Brexit Party of the arch Euroskeptic Nigel Farage, whose party topped the European parliamentary polls earlier this year.