Today
Thu 21 October 2021

Truth and decency have little currency in Boris Johnson’s rump Trumpocracy, says Sam Bright

A moderate, centre-left candidate with a history of personal trauma has won the Batley and Spen by-election – narrowly but decisively – to the relief of those who feel browbeaten by the repeated gains of populists and nationalists. Meanwhile, an ageing egotist with a history of political realignment has called the result into question – pledging a court battle to overturn the ballot.

Kim Leadbeater’s inauguration in the West Yorkshire constituency may be somewhat less glamorous than Joe Biden’s on Capitol Hill, but the parallels in their paths to power are striking. The toxic by-products of the Donald Trump era have seeped into English politics, even poisoning local contests – such as the one fought in Batley and Spen over recent weeks.

America has always been seen by Brits as a louder, brasher country than ours – the tempo of debate dialled up by an aggressive, polarised media ecosystem. Yet, just as our unwritten constitution relies on good chaps being in power, so too our political campaigns are premised on gentleman’s rules. If someone lies or cheats, the Westminster political apparatus doesn’t hold many tools in its armoury. The shame of behaving inappropriately is supposed to act as an invisible barrier to fake news, hate and hostility – and, before 2016, by and large, it did.

However, the success enjoyed by Trump and Brexit exploded the moral fabric of politics on both sides of the Atlantic. One campaign called Mexicans rapists and downplayed sexual harassment; the other whipped up fears of a migrant invasion and mass benefits fraud. Their victories signalled the death of the gentleman’s agreement – and the evaporation of the rules that governed political conduct.

In its place has been substituted a Wild West environment, whereby onlookers find it difficult to keep pace with the frequency and scale of fake news, online and offline abuse, and the basic fracturing of the nation.

This could be witnessed in technicolour during the Batley and Spen by-election. A-third of the candidates on the ballot were far-right figures. One sold her campaign – in an area that has a large Muslim population – on the fact that she is “British, white and Christian”.

The constituency played host to conspiracy theories and hostility couched on religious and racial separation – particularly in relation to LGBT rights. The Labour Party, which preached local unity, was not entirely immune to these trends either – distributing a leaflet labelled as “dog whistle racism” by one of its own MPs.

Meanwhile, an increasingly polarised punditocracy used the event to settle political scores – further inflaming tensions. When anti-LGBT activists hounded the Labour candidate Kim Leadbeater, some decided to blame the journalists who simply captured the scene – thus imitating Trump’s anti-media crusade.

The second-placed Conservative candidate, for his part, remained strangely absent from the contest – presumably hoping that he could steal the trophy while Leadbeater and anti-Labour candidate George Galloway were scrapping in the mud.

Galloway has now threatened to overturn the election result in court, which would hand victory to the Conservatives if he is successful. It is a strange change of heart from someone who once said that former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher should “burn in the hellfires”.

But this is the reality of post-morality: when truth and honour no longer matter, contests are merely spectacles in self-aggrandisement. If upholding a greater truth or dreams of a better country are futile endeavours, winning at any cost becomes the only currency.

Indeed, the Conservative Party may have perched on the sidelines in Batley and Spen, but Boris Johnson is the chief practitioner of Trumpism with a posh accent. He has no qualms about sacrificing the truth on the bonfire of his political ambitions. Throughout his career, as a journalist and now a politician, the Prime Minister has treated facts as inconveniences – and he is now the beneficiary of an environment that rewards his inviolable pursuit of self-glory. In the rump Trumpocracy, Johnson is emperor.

Ultimately, this is a quandary for the Labour Party and its leader Keir Starmer, who appears to be operating in a past political era, when truth and decency mattered. His morality is a burden that prevents him from laying a glove on the fleet-footed, conscience-free Prime Minister.

Biden won in 2020 because America became sick of Trump’s ignorant, arrogant posturing – and his corrupting influence on the nation and its political system. Such weariness has not yet been witnessed in England, even despite its leadership’s brazen imitation of the populist playbook.

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