A Populist’s Problem: British Governance in the Age of Corona

18 Sep 2020 – Written by Gabriella Cook Francis


    • The Brexiteer movement and its leaders in the UK rose to political power following the 2008 market collapse, and subsequent national austerity programme and eurozone crisis.

    • However, the organisation that Boris Johnson made his national career railing against has done something he has not– created a long-term Coronavirus economic recovery plan.

    • The Next Generation EU (NGEU) recovery plan has intentionally flipped many of Brexiteers’ critiques, showcasing the EU’s strengths by highlighting the importance of expertise, diplomacy, and multilateralism in times of crisis.

    • Relying primarily on emergency policies 6 months into the crisis, the pressure is mounting for the UK to respond to the challenges of Covid-19 and prove that the UK is truly better alone.

    • To avoid being panned as yet another ineffectual elite, Prime Minister Boris Johnson must solve the ‘populist problem’ and make good on the Brexiteers’ populist appeals while governing

A Populist’s Problem

Far-right wing populist movements and parties existed in Europe for decades before Brexit. Though with the rallying salvo of “take back control,” Brexiteers were able to mount a historic challenge the British and European political establishments. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), the most significant right-wing populist party in the UK, largely built its vote share by appealing to white, non-university educated, working class voters’ disaffection with political elites in the wake of the 2008 recession. Barely a decade later, Europe is faced with new twin crises, Covid-19 and its devastating economic effects, with avowed right-wing populists in positions of power throughout the continent. Some have claimed the poor populist response to Covid-19 could spell the end of populism in the Europe, as resolving these crises will undoubtedly require political expertise, international diplomacy, and multilateral fiscal coordination (Rachman, 2020). Plus, the Coronavirus response of populist leaders in the US, UK, and Brazil has been widely condemned (Serhan, 2020). Though the rush to celebrate the end of populism forgets both how populists came into power post-2008 and the tools at PM Johnson’s disposal to reconcile a common populist problem.

Populism is an oft-discussed concept, though so ill-defined that some political scientists and journalists consider the term to be meaningless (Hasan, 2019). However, the perspective that populism cannot be parsed and described is short-sighted. Populist movements can be ideologically, geographically, racially, and economically diverse, though the commonality of all populist movements is a distinction made between an ‘elite’ and an oppressed ‘people’. Political scientist Kurt Weyland calls populism a political strategy, principally concerned with gaining, maintaining, and exercising power (2001, pp. 18). Populism itself is not an ideology, but a way to mobilise mass numbers of people to achieve a goal. Though once in office, populists are faced with a managerial and messaging problem. Having become the elite they railed against, newly elected populists must create policies that both appeal to their mass base while appeasing the establishment they now govern. In times of crises, this dilemma can lead populist leaders, positively, to be ideologically flexible or, negatively, to break institutions that won’t conform to their will (Mudde, 2015). Therefore, who is included in a populist’s definitions of ‘the people’ and the ‘elite’ has significant implications for the policy and political choices made by leaders once in office. The Brexit movement can easily be classified as a right-wing populist movement, led by charismatic leaders like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and framed as a righteous struggle between downtrodden Englanders and the rapacious, transnational Brussels elite.

Following the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson remarked “I can tell you that the number one issue was control – a sense that British democracy was being undermined by the EU system, and that we should restore to the people that vital power….” (Kettle, 2016). Johnson’s remarks echoed Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove, who stated in 2016 “I am asking the British people to take back control from those [EU] organisations which are distant and elitist…. With trade it is really important that we take back control” (Maddox, 2016). Gove’s remarks encapsulate the Brexiteer argument against the EU broadly that: the EU represents an unaccountable and inflexible elite; multilateralism is an unnecessary constraint on the UK’s sovereignty; and the UK economy would be better off without EU rules and regulations. However, the Coronavirus and subsequent economic crisis has fundamentally undermined this right-wing populist critique of the EU.

The EU Response: Next Generation EU (NGEU)

In late July 2020, EU leaders agreed on the Next Generation EU (NGEU) recovery package. The policy combines a three-year Coronavirus recovery fund with a seven-year EU budget that tops out €1.82 trillion. The Covid-19 recovery allots €750 billion, €390 billion in grants and €360 billion in loans, that Member States to access under the Recovery and Resilience Facility scheme (European Council, 2020). Italy and Spain are expected to be the largest beneficiaries of the plan, as both nations suffered from two of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks and longest lockdowns in Europe (Biggins, 2020). The devastating economic effect of the lockdowns in Italy and Spain on both tourism and consumer spending makes the significance of the deal striking for these economies. The strongest opposition to NGEU came from the Frugal Four nations, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands, who sought to reduce the funding in the aid package, though ultimately compromised to make a deal. NGEU still must pass through European Parliament, but the deal shows promising signs for how the Union is learning from recent populist challenges.

NGEU was designed to address the EU’s long-term strategic goals. Both the budget and Recovery and Resilience Facility scheme place an emphasis on reducing carbon emissions, and payment of recovery aid is conditioned on respect for the rule of law. By also targeting the countries most vulnerable to economic collapse, the deal is likely saving the EU from another currency crisis. Though aside from the policy, the deal marks a notable shift from post-2008 politics. Right-wing populists in the UK have made a major impact on European politics, forcing the EU to adapt to the threat posed by anti-establishment challengers. Consequently, these current crop of populists must now face a Europe that is united, building a path to long-term economic recovery, and actively correcting its political choices and messaging given populists’ recent success. Asked by BBC reporter Gavin Lee if contentious negotiations with the Frugal Four had damaged the EU’s image or NGEU, French President Emmanuel Macron responded “It’s legitimate that we have different sensibilities… If we don’t take into account the realities, we’d put these leaders in a difficult spot and it would favour the populists” (BBC News, 2020).

The UK Response: A New New Deal?

The UK laid out a three-part recovery plan in early July 2020, titled by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak the ‘Plan for Jobs’. The UK’s government plan included many necessary, emergency policies such as the furlough scheme to reimburse workers for 80% of their salary. The Plan for Jobs focuses heavily on employer relief, such as the Job Retention Bonus aimed to help businesses keep furloughed workers by providing a single bonus of £1,000 for each furloughed employee who is still employed as of February 2021. The Plan also creates a framework to spend £2 billion on a Kickstart Scheme to create thousands of jobs for young workers, and incentivises firms to re-hire younger workers and top-up their now subsidised minimum wage. To further address the collapse of the consumer spending in the UK, the government introduced Eat Out to Help Out which subsidised 50% of restaurant goers meals Monday-Wednesday in August.

However, all of these policies lapse—and many at critical times. The short-term nature of the programmes also creates uncertainty for both workers and employers. Workers, encouraged to spend to stimulate the economy, have no assurances of when these crises will end and how necessary it is to save. Employers, with government subsidies lapsing this month, have already signalled that mass job loss is inevitable without further intervention (Strauss, 2020). Ultimately, these policies are also a far cry from the “Rooseveltian” New Deal-style policy package promised by Boris Johnson months ago, and illustrate the confusion within the administration which is torn between reconciling the public health or economic crisis first.

For example, Eat Out to Help Out drives up Coronavirus numbers, as disproportionately those who contract Covid-19 were infected at restaurants (Walker, 2020). Spiking cases undermine the economic response and cause lockdowns, which, in turn, exacerbates the economic crisis. This vicious cycle will almost certainly be worsened by the projected economic fall-out from Brexit, and compounded by nascent political woes with Scotland and Northern Ireland over the decision to the leave the EU. The Brexiteers’ populist promises of massively increased public spending on the NHS and other social services also seem to be encountering pushback with tax hikes on the wealthy preferred over welfare cuts by Sunak, drawing the ire of Conservative Party members.

The Populist Revival

2008 revealed that global political and financial elites had been caught flat-footed. Having been dismissive of the unintended consequences global market integration and unaware of the rapidly shifting populist vote share, elites found themselves stunned by the success of the Brexit movement. Though the current global political elite are comprised of populist leaders who made their careers off campaigning on the failures of 2008. Boris Johnson now finds himself in a populist dilemma: of being able to maintain the ‘people’-first messaging of Brexit and managing the modern bureaucratic state– in times of compounding crises.

If neoliberalism was the kindling that sparked the rise of populism in the UK, then the 2008 financial crisis was pure fuel to the flame. The UK prioritized saving financial sectors of the economy first and was successful, with GDP returning to pre-2008 levels within 5 years, though post-2008 austerity measures limited the recovery effects felt by the middle and working classes. Even after national unemployment levels fell in 2015, real wages haven’t risen in a decade despite the cost of living steadily rising and worker productivity increasing (ONS, 2018; Partington, 2019). The lasting effects of austerity lingered over compounding institutional failings in public education and regional economic investment resulting in largely stagnant social mobility for working-class Brits (Social Mobility Commission, 2019). Studying nearly 40,000 households, Thiemo Fetzer found that regional or individual exposure to post-2008 welfare cuts was substantially correlated to increased support for UKIP. Fetzer’s data shows that UKIP vote shares increased by between 3.5 to 11.9%, primarily in districts most effected by social spending cuts between 2005 and 2015. He argues that had it not been for austerity, these UKIP gains would have been highly implausible.

Populist movements can have an astonishingly rapid rise and fall. Political scientists note that populist movements tend to disintegrate once a political objective is achieved, which has already happened in the UK (Weyland, 2001; Roberts, 2007). For example, UKIP vote share shrunk by over 10% between the referendum in 2015 and the last national election in 2019. In fact, the 2019 election was UKIP’s worst electoral showing since the party was founded in 1991 (Audickas et al., 2020). Given that UKIP’s support was consolidated into the Conservative Party in the 2019 general election, one must ask if populism in the UK is going the way of the UKIP. Some have answered this question claiming that Coronavirus could “kill off” populism in the UK (Rachman, 2020). However, this perspective ignores precisely what makes populism so appealing.

Populism provides an answer and an enemy to groups that have felt disempowered in a political system. On the right, populists can seize the narrative on immigration reform, or on the left, the failures of militarism. For populists to be successful and compelling, they must continue finding an elite to campaign against. Now, the Prime Minister must both satisfy his base’s demand to stand up to Brussels, rapidly contain and sustain Covid infection and death numbers, and dramatically improve the economic forecast for his ‘squeezed’, downwardly mobile working and middle class voters (Antonucci et al., 2017). Meanwhile, the underlying structural factors that fuel populist movements and parties like income inequality, declining social mobility, and rising voter apathy, are still prevalent in the UK. These series of immediate leadership challenges may be insurmountable for Boris Johnson.

If Johnson and his populist counterparts fail to meet the moment, it seems more likely another crop of populists will rise from the ashes of the Brexit movement. These new populists will thrive on the failed or lagging crisis response, claiming that Johnson himself was an Etonian elite whose failure was inevitable. The future populists will critique the leadership class of the Brexit movement as being ineffectual elites themselves, and either subsume disaffected Brexit voters or potentially shift towards social democrats (Yeandle, 2020).

Addressing long-term economic inequality and social stagnation will challenge Johnson to double down on his appeal to the ‘people’ at the expense of elites within the Conservative Party and shake the fiscal constraints of traditional conservatism. The ideological flexibility shown by historic populist leaders could be handy to Johnson. Indeed, the Conservative government is already spending extraordinarily to stimulate the economy and proposing increasing taxes on the wealthy, and despite Boris Johnson’s poll numbers falling down since the start of Covid-19, the Conservative Party is still more popular than Labour (Politico, 2020). This is a pivotal moment for populist leadership that will define the future of British politics and economics for a decade or more, very similar to how 2008 left an irreversible impact on global politics. If Johnson succeeds in managing these crises, he will be heralded as a populist hero and could be a boon to other right-wing populists in Europe. Though if he fails, Johnson may give way to the rise of British populism 2.0.





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Recommended citation:

Cook Francis, G. (2020) A Populist’s Problem: British Governance in the Age of Corona, IDRN, 18 September. Available at: https://idrn.eu/democracy-and-civil-society/a-populists-problem-british-governance-in-the-age-of-corona [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].