For Johnsons Tories, the collapse of public trust isnt a problem its an opportunity – The Guardian

After a chaotic and surreal campaign, there was a comforting familiarity about the rituals of election night. Tories will rehearse their favourite fairytale that the party of Thatcher has finally rediscovered its 1980s mojo while Labour retreats to its own comfort zone, of bitter internal feuding. But amid all this drama, there is a danger that we might forget how deeply abnormal the Conservative election campaign has been, and how frighteningly unfamiliar the impending government could be.

The winning campaign strategy was simple: to make this the second referendum, to make it as exhausting as possible, and to make sure Labours offer of yet another referendum look more exhausting still. The Tories blank policy agenda beyond passing the existing Brexit deal in January was aimed directly at a group of voters who dont trust politicians, dont believe government can help them, and are done with listening to liberal elites bickering over the precise number of hospitals the Tories will or wont build.

For todays Conservatives, the collapse of trust in institutions isnt a problem its an opportunity. Get Brexit done, like Donald Trumps build a wall, was not a policy pledge so much as a mantra to identify with, for those who think the establishment is a stitch-up.

Two other ingredients were necessary. First, a rightwing big tent needed constructing, one that spreads all the way from Matt Hancock in the centre-right out to Tommy Robinson on the far right. Johnson repeatedly did just enough to communicate to former Brexit party voters that he was on their side. For the desperate men and women (but mostly men) living in the abandoned economic regions of the Midlands and north, for whom only a Trump figure would be enough to draw them to the polls, Johnson performed that role adequately. For well-off elderly voters, who had been seduced by Faragist visions of national identity, Johnsons dog whistles hit home. Study his apologies for past Islamophobic comments, and youll notice that theyre never apologies at all they are affirmations of his right to say what everyone is thinking.

Rebranded as the peoples government, there is no reason to expect it will embrace normal democratic scrutiny or opposition

Second, Johnsons media profile and contacts were leveraged to the hilt. By the end of the campaign, he was performing a kind of Jeremy Clarkson role obliterating any democratic dialogue or interrogation by dressing up as a milkman or driving a forklift truck. Boris began life as a construct of the Daily Telegraph and Have I Got News For You, but now exists as a genre of social media content. Unlike in the heyday of broadcast and print media, propaganda now has to be lively and engaging in order to work.

And so the election was not won by an ordinary political party, with policies, members and ideology. It was won by a single-issue new-media startup you might call it Vote Boris fronted by a TV star, which will now unveil a largely unknown policy agenda.

The 2016 referendum result, together with the Boris phenomenon, have created a Trojan horse, within which lurks who knows what. But the chances of it offering anything transformative to the former Labour voters of Blyth Valley or Bolsover, beyond the occasional culture-war titbit, are minimal.

One thing we do know is that the Vote Boris campaign was funded by hedge funds and wealthy British entrepreneurs just as they donated heavily to Vote Leave. But who knows what they get in return? It also seems safe to assume, on the evidence of Johnsons first few months in office, that his administration will be hostile to many basic norms of the constitution and the liberal public sphere. Meanwhile, a triumphant Dominic Cummings will have his eye on a drastic transformation of Whitehall and regulators, inspired by exotic forms of rationalism, game theory and the libertarian right.

If the new Johnson government sustains its unprecedented relationship with the media of the past six weeks threatening public service broadcasters, excluding the Daily Mirror from its campaign bus, seamless coordination with the conservative press, using Boris to distract from every unwelcome news item then it will be virtually impossible for it to be held to account for what it does. And having already rebranded itself as the peoples government, there is no reason to expect it will embrace normal democratic scrutiny or opposition.

A combination of Brexit, decades of neglect and political alienation in Labours heartlands, the new digital media ecology, and hints of frightening illiberalism could conspire to produce a form of democracy that looks more like Hungary or even Russia than the checks-and-balances system of liberal ideals. Its not that democracy will end, but that it will be reduced to a set of spectacles that the government is ultimately in command of, which everyone realises are fake but that are sufficiently funny or soothing as to be tolerated.

This may sound paranoid, but it is merely an extrapolation from the trends that are already in full sway. Just like Trump, Johnsons capacity to make headlines and change the subject means we can quickly forget how much damage he has already done, in less than six months instead we are locked in a perpetual present, squabbling over the details of what hes doing right now. Its important to keep track. Challenging this juggernaut will be a far larger and more complex project than anything Her Majestys opposition can do alone.

William Davies is a sociologist and political economist

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For Johnsons Tories, the collapse of public trust isnt a problem its an opportunity - The Guardian

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