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Trump on the Thames? Not so fast

  • Published at 05:59 pm July 12th, 2019
Seeing double? REUTERS

Boris Johnson will face more checks and balances than his American friend 

esident Trump tweeted with glee this week that his friend Boris Johnson was about to become Britain’s prime minister. In the back of his mind, America’s Republican president -- never much given to nuanced thinking -- is likely salivating at the supposed possibility of a kindred spirit taking the helms in London.

Barring a major upheaval or salacious revelation, Boris Johnson -- the former mayor of London and past editor of the populist right wing magazine Spectator -- will become the parliamentary leader of the British Conservative Party and, hence, the prime minister of the United Kingdom before this month is out.

But President Trump may still be disappointed.

Boris Johnson is, like his friend Donald Trump, a product of privilege who has found the populist mantle to be very useful in making headway in politics through stoking resentment, harping on grievances, and applying a coating of xenophobia to boot. Unlike his fellow New Yorker (Johnson was born in New York and subsequently renounced his US citizenship as an adult), the ex-leader of Britain’s capital is constrained by certain institutional checks and balances that are much weaker in the US.

Though not as strong as in its heydays in the 1970s, the UK’s party system remains far more robust than its American counterpart, with the influence of local leaders, elected officials, and dues paying rank and file providing a constraint on a national party leader that is simply unthinkable in the US where presidents, in practice, can largely dictate the composition of their party’s leadership at every level from the top to the grassroots.  

Even as the “Brexit” camp dominates Conservative Party grassroots, the manner of such a divorce from the EU tends to lay open the fissures within the party which traditionally has had strong ties with British business interests. Those interests have a sizeable minority of sympathetic MPs who support an exit from Europe but not necessarily without a workable deal covering investments, trade, human capital, and industry standards. A “no deal Brexit” that Johnson seems to favour is certainly not a monolithic view in his own party.

The main opposition, Labour Party, has similar internal divisions regarding Brexit, but it seems quite united in its impish desire to deny the ruling Tory ministry -- with some help from Conservative backbenchers -- any real legislative victory over a Brexit deal. So far, this stratagem has worked thrice and led to the impending departure of the current Prime Minister Theresa May.

In fact, now, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has come out tentatively in favour of remaining in the EU unless there is a good Brexit deal through parliament. Another failure to deliver some workable deal for the divorce, and it is almost certain that there will be snap general elections, a full three years before the next regularly scheduled polls.

If polls and the last English local elections are any indicators, the Conservative Party does not have good signals going into any general elections right now, with the xenophobic-populist “Brexit Party” and the pro-European classical Liberal Democrats both eating significantly into Tory support.

The UK’s mostly first-past-the-post electoral system makes it difficult for smaller parties to get seats proportional to their vote share, but the local government election results may indicate a localized shift big enough to make the Liberal Democrats, under their energetic leader Sir Vincent Cable, to be a force that has a place at the table in future governance.  

Then there is, of course, Britain’s civil service which is often disproportionately dominated by upper-crust individuals at the higher levels and deeply intertwined with its Western European counterparts through EU institutions. Though fastidiously dutiful to its political masters, Her Majesty’s career bureaucrats are known for their reticence and soft pedaling of any major and disruptive changes to things as they are.

The independence of the civil service and its role as a pillar of stability is far more entrenched in the British psyche than in the American one. A boisterous tabloid journalist with pretensions of “Trump on the Thames” is not likely to make the mandarins of Whitehall move any faster on policies they consider to be harmful to Queen and Country.

All said, Great Britain’s political dynamics and rules -- both written and unwritten -- do not bode well for an incarnation of a British Donald Trump in the person of Boris Johnson. Sooner than later, America’s president may well have to deal with a British prime minister whose own exigencies leave him unable to emulate the braggadocio of a cross-Atlantic icon. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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