A Very British TrumpA Leader Captured by Media
‘Britain Trump’ was how the former US President once described Boris Johnson. Now Dominic Cummings’ testimony has confirmed our worst fears, writes Peter Jukes
For years, the parallels could often be dismissed as superficial and personal: bouffant hair, deliberate buffoonery, and a record of mendacity. President Joe Biden described the British Prime Minister as the “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump”. But connections between the former president and Boris Johnson were always much deeper than that.
They rose to power on the same transatlantic wave of populism in 2016, often backed and funded by the same ‘anti-establishment’ conservative funders. Both had a penchant for wealthy oligarchs, especially with Russian connections.
Back in 2013, a year after Paul Staines had registered the website Boris2020.org, his Guido Fawkes news reporter Harry Cole was sharing a stage with Breitbart supremo Steve Bannon just as he was setting up Cambridge Analytica. The now-defunct political consulting firm worked for Leave.EU during the European Union referendum, its spin-off AIQ was the main recipient of Johnson’s Vote Leave (over)spending, months before powering the surprise Trump presidential victory in 2016.
Of course, there are differences between the two men. Though born in New York City, Johnson is quintessentially a class product of Britain’s private education system and right-wing media establishment. Johnson extemporises with Latin tags and literary references while Trump offers art-of-the-deal snake oil and the blunt, hard sell of a used car dealer.
But if you wanted localised versions of a populist leader who viscerally appeals to hyper-conservative values, particularly among older white men, you’d probably be hard pressed to come up with two versions so aptly tailored to the cultures of the US and the UK.
For a while, both Johnson and his supporters were happy with this twinning, especially when (as many in Conservative circles had convinced themselves) Trump was expected to win a second term as President last year.
It was only after he clearly didn’t, and refused to concede amid spurious claims of voter fraud, that British commentators began to pull the plug. The day after riots at the Capitol on 6 January this year, the Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth tried to argue in The Times that the British Prime Minister was “not Trump’s transatlantic twin”, claiming that Britain’s “party system also acts as a check on leaders”.
Chaos in Downing Street
Dominic Cummings’ seven-hour marathon testimony before the health and science committees surely has put paid to such tepid and tendentious analysis. The portrait of Johnson from his closest advisor in power revealed, if anything, a system of governance much more chaotic and even more dysfunctional than Trump’s White House.
We know, from the number of hirings and firings and reports from ex-staff and aides, that the US President was surrounded by dozens of officials devoted to checking his impetuosity and peevish instincts. They often failed. Or if they didn’t, were fired. But there was a system in place which held the guardrails – just.
Compared to those Borgia-like palace struggles in the West Wing, Number 10 Downing Street appears, in Cummings’ account, more like a Whitehall farce: Fawlty Towers updated with expensive wallpaper and take-away meals.
On a personal level, Johnson was depicted as being obsessed with personal matters – his divorce, his finances, the pregnancy of his girlfriend and her ire at news coverage of their dog, Dilyn.
When Cummings threatened to resign because of the chaos in Number 10 in the summer of last year, his boss admitted he wasn’t afraid of the chaos. “Chaos isn’t that bad,” Johnson told Cummings “it means people have to look to me to see who is in charge.”
This will to personal power and prestige instead of accountability and public service is text book Trumpism, and coming at a moment of crisis, said to his closest advisor, is a rare insight into the psychology of a man who avoids all accountability. And when it comes to breaking the norms of governance, whether unlawfully trying to prorogue Parliament, or threatening to abjure international law, Johnson has probably been even more iconoclastic in his first two years in power than Trump.
But much more worrying than this is the media bubble the Prime Minister appears to live in.
The Press Answering Service
In The Times, Forsyth accused those of comparing Johnson to Trump of living in some kind of echo chamber. But it’s clear from Cummings’ testimony that few people live so surrounded by images and impressions of themselves as the occupier of Number 10.
Cummings portrayed the nerve centre of British politics as little more than a “press answering service”. During the last year of the Coronavirus, he said the Prime Minister’s daily decision making would be determined by the press rather than focused on policy: “He just gets up, reads the papers, says ‘right, what are they doing today?’ and then cannons around.” He was “a thousand times too obsessed with the media” and ““changes his mind 10 times a day, and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy, day after day after day”, Cummings claimed. When it came to lockdowns, school closures and other pressing matters of life or death Cummings said Johnson would be “knocked off course by the Telegraph“.
This is a direct parallel to Donald Trump (albeit more staid and English), who reportedly would spend most his mornings and late evenings watching coverage of his Government on CNN and Fox News, taking to Twitter to lambast the former and praise the latter. Murdoch’s executives soon realised that, by manipulating this bubble, they could mould US Government policy, with numerous examples of stances adopted by Trump immediately after the segments fronted by Sean Hannity.
The infosphere around Boris Johnson is much more narrow, and even easier to manipulate. After all, the owners of the Telegraph employed Johnson for decades, and no doubt he also pays excessive attention to the Spectator which he used to edit, along with the Mail, the Sun, The Times and Sunday Times. He has captivated many lobby journalists, but in returned he is captured and mesmerised as surely as Murdoch beguiled Trump in the not too distant past.
With notable exceptions in the Times group, the general tendency among these papers has been to present a slew of unreliable stories about Britain achieving herd immunity, that the pandemic was over-egged, and almost over. Criticised by the Government for misinformation over the second wave of the pandemic in the Autumn, the Mail even boasted that it had successfully leaned on officials to delete the claim.
According to Cummings, this onslaught of pseudoscience and COVID-scepticism influenced the Prime Minister. By last Summer, Johnson was raging against the lockdown he had himself belatedly imposed largely because – Cummings claimed – of “the Daily Telegraph and their stupid campaign about it”.
By the crucial moment of the second wave, when transmission was rising rapidly last September, Johnson took the advice of two media-created lockdown sceptics over and above his own chief scientific and medical advisors. The result: a second wave worse than the first (and worse than any other comparable country), prompting two-thirds of our Coronavirus deaths.
If anything, though it received less attention than the early failures in the first wave, this second failure is more important than the herd immunity fiasco earlier that year. By this time, Johnson had no excuse. Neither did the newspapers beaming their misinformation into his membrane. Cummings claimed he should have resigned to highlight the error, using the media, via a press conference, to break through the wallpaper of lies
With Cummings gone, and the absence of anyone else of similar standing willing to challenge him, we can only expect Johnson’s chaos to continue. Unlike Trump, who was felled by his failure to handle the early days of the pandemic, Johnson can ride high on the success of the vaccine rollout. He appears untouchable, teflon-coated, and the response of the opposition Labour Party seems muted, baffled, lost.
But therein lie the seeds of Johnson’s downfall. His plan to sack people like Hancock to carry the can for his failures has been severely limited by Cummings’ testimony which – much more firmly than anything that happened under Trump – weds his fate to that of Hancock like a hoop of fire. If Hancock lied – so did Johnson.
Beyond that, the chaos and narcissism revealed by Cummings shows the only thing binding the carnival float together is the force of Johnson’s ego. Yet, though he has made such an impression on the Conservative Party, now moulded in his image, he also shows himself vulnerable to his media friends, craving respect and adulation, and therefore likely to bear the imprint of the next person who sits on him.
Trump predicted ‘American Carnage’. He got it, and is now out of office. Johnson claims to thrive on chaos, and he will surely get more of that too. But I doubt the British people have much more appetite for it.
what the papers don’t say
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