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‘A Populist Demagogue’ – Johnson’s Government ‘Most Extreme I’ve Seen’, says Former Tory Attorney General

Dominic Grieve told Byline TV that the Government’s disregard for the rule of law, its xenophobic rhetoric over migrants and its cronyism show why the Conservative Party’s problems go beyond one leader

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the 2021 Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Raymond Tang/Alamy

‘A Populist Demagogue’Johnson’s Government ‘Most Extreme I’ve Seen’Says Former Tory Attorney General

Dominic Grieve told Byline TV that the Government’s disregard for the rule of law, its xenophobic rhetoric over migrants and its cronyism show why the Conservative Party’s problems go beyond one leader

The Prime Minister is a “shambles” who was always going to be forced down the route of becoming a “populist demagogue” – but simply getting rid of him will not end the Conservative Party’s deeper problems, a former Conservative Attorney General who Boris Johnson expelled has told Byline TV.

Dominic Grieve said he believes that Johnson “hasn’t got any policies” and therefore populism was the only direction “in which he was going to be productive”. Therefore, instead of tempering more extreme sentiments, the Government inflames them.

“If you are pandering to people’s prejudices, because it is a way of getting short-term fixes, to your lack of policy, and your being a shambles, it’s inevitably going to take you down this road, Grieve told Byline TV. “As an MP, people come in and demand higher sentences for crimes, feel angry or unhappy or upset and want change. And, generally speaking, the Conservative Party has seen itself as absorbing this, but acting as a check and moderator. 

“If you decide to no longer be a moderator, because it suits your short-term agenda, to cover-up for the shambles, to do something else, then that’s the route down which you’re going to be pushed… When it comes to the crunch, it’s much easier for him to go down the route of being a populist demagogue than to actually say ‘oh, I stand up for liberal conservative values’ – because he hasn’t got any policies.”

The former MP for Beaconsfield was one of 21 Conservative MPs expelled from the party in 2019 by Johnson, on the advice of his then chief aide Dominic Cummings, over Brexit.  

He told Byline TV that the removal of Johnson as Prime Minister in itself would not lead to significant change for the party, which is under the grip of a warped and weaponised sense of “parliamentary sovereignty” as its guiding principle.

“I don’t think it would completely cure the problem,” the barrister said. “We seem to be living in a period with an obsession for this thing called parliamentary sovereignty. It does mean ultimately in our constitution that Parliament’s will is going to prevail. But, the attitude of the Government… is that parliamentary sovereignty means that a government with a majority can do absolutely whatever it likes. And then, if people disapprove, they chuck that Government out at the next general election, and that is democracy with parliamentary sovereignty.

“But parliamentary democracy works, in part, because minorities are prepared to accept majority decisions. And, once you remove the legitimacy of minority viewpoints, you are starting to erode the very foundations on which our society is based. And that’s extremely dangerous.

“It is the difference between the rule of law and rule by law. Rule by law means you pass a law on anything you like, and then that is how you coerce people into doing things. Rule of law carries with it an implication that it’s being done within a historic constitutional framework, where there are limits to the way governments will behave even when they have full power, potentially, to behave differently. This Government is the most extreme example I’ve seen in all my time in politics for having a disregard for principles of the rule of law.”

Responding to Johnson’s plan to reportedly allow ministers to throw-out legal rulings that the Government does not agree with, and restrict the power of judicial review – a key check on the executive – Grieve, a QC, said that the move seems predicated on keeping judges in the frame as “enemies of the people”.

“They seem to really quite like it if the judges are seen as being an obstacle to change,” he told Byline TV. “It’s a way of trying to overrule the judiciary and saying ‘you better watch it, because if you don’t conform better, you’re going to find that this is all a real, much more severe confrontation’.”

He also believes that Johnson has “deeply disappointed a strand of conservatism”, which believes in free market economics and less state intervention – principles at odds with the Government’s cronyism and ‘pork barrel’ scandals, in which millions of pounds in taxpayers’ money has been given in the form of contracts to Tory supporters and as local grants to marginal and Conservative constituencies. Both were exposed by Byline Times.

“One of the motivating forces in the Conservative Party for Brexit was free market economics… what is actually moving in is an exceptionally protectionist [approach]… in the sense that the state is interfering constantly,” Grieve said. “And one where the sorts of cosy relationships which are likely to emerge, particularly under pressure when ordinary procurement processes go, are far more likely to happen. 

“Although Johnson occasionally pays lip service to ‘we will have lower taxes later, we will deregulate at some point’… Essentially, this is a centralising, hands-on government, which believes that it can get away with actually high levels of taxation, promises for public expenditure, which I think are almost certainly unsustainable, and wants to micromanage the placing of money. 

“Even when you’re not talking about giving money to cronies, there is the process by which ministers have sent money to their own constituencies or marginal seats that they want to… this has happened in the past, but it’s the sort of thing which conservatives used to denounce. This was seen as being the sort of thing which a Labour government did, not a Conservative government. And yet we now have it, I think, almost as a commonplace.”

With the Prime Minister lacking any agenda of his own, Dominic Grieve told Byline TV that the current Government has chanelled the spirit of Enoch Powell in fuelling xenophobic rhetoric around migrants as “displacement activity” in the absence of having a plan to improve people’s lives.

“You ramp up the rhetoric, and you get your ministers to say things which 10 years ago would have been regarded as outrageous,” he said. “They seem to feed off public anger and irritation with the status quo, and then say ‘we will provide solutions’… that he’s actually never going to be able to deliver on anyway. And so people will then be more cynical, more disappointed, angrier.”

For Grieve, public anxiety about immigration should not be dismissed, but most governments have been “very concerned about maintaining good community relations, and not fueling xenophobia – what is so apparent with Johnson’s administration is he’s not very bothered about that because, from his point of view, this is a popular cause that he can be seen as championing and responding to”. 

“Those sorts of bits of self restraint that we would normally expect have been abandoned,” he told Byline TV. “And, quite apart from anything else, he’s allowed rhetoric about what he’s going to do about it that is wholly divorced from reality. So for example, Priti Patel, saying that they’re going to send boats out to bump refugee boats back into French waters, is just never going to happen. But it got them the cheap headline in some national newspapers of a kind that they need.”

Watch the full interview, also including Byline Times contributor Peter Oborne, on Byline TV

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