The Prime Minister’s smears against Keir Starmer are part of an increasingly dangerous approach to politics which draws inspiration from the US, reports Adam Bienkov

“I hope I will be forgiven if I indulge in a few tasteless comparisons between the crazed and increasingly blood-soaked tyrant Muammar al-Gaddafi and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown”, wrote Boris Johnson back in 2011.

Johnson’s comparison, which he justified by stating that the two men “look vaguely similar” and “both favour long and rambling speeches” is just one example in a long list of occasions when he has sought to use the tactic of smear by association.

Over the years Johnson has variously compared his political opponents to a whole range of other murderous tyrants, including Hitler, Kim Jong-Il, Stalin, the Taliban and Pol Pot.

By seeking to draw these associations, however ludicrous, Johnson hopes to delegitimise and dehumanise his opponents and critics.

In some ways, it has been a highly effective tactic. Rather than engaging in the substance of a given argument or criticism, Johnson has instead forced his opponents to spend their time trying to remove the often vile associations he has placed upon them.

The most recent example of this occurred last week. Under fire following an official report which revealed he was under police investigation for attending multiple illegal parties in Downing Street, the Prime Minister sought to change the subject by attempting to associate Keir Starmer with Jimmy Savile.

Johnson’s claim, that Starmer had “spent most of his time [at the Crown Prosecution Service] prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”, was false and deeply dangerous. His attempt to associate the Labour leader with one of Britain’s worst-ever sex offenders put Starmer at risk not just of political harm, but of real physical harm. Indeed, within days, the Labour leader had to be bundled into a police car after being surrounded by a mob of protesters repeating Johnson’s smear.

The similarity of this approach to that taken by Donald Trump is obvious. In 2016 when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination Trump raised a conspiracy theory falsely linking his opponent Ted Cruz’s father to the assassination of President Kennedy. He repeated the same tactic during his campaign against the Democrat candidate Hilary Clinton, repeating false smears linking her to the death of the lawyer Vince Foster.

In both cases Trump’s intent, like Johnson’s, was to delegitimise and dehumanise his opponents. However, while some have suggested that Johnson’s latest smear against Starmer is a descent into a “Trumpian” approach, Johnson’s own use of smears by association long predates the former president’s arrival on the political stage.

As tactics go it is a blunt one and can sometimes backfire. The Prime Minister’s own smear against Starmer was followed by widespread condemnation from his own side and the resignation of his longest-serving aide Munira Mirza. And while the Prime Minister did succeed in changing the subject from his attendance at illegal parties in Downing Street, he did so only by changing it to the issue of his own dishonesty.

However, desperate times call for desperate measures and there are few politicians who are in a more desperate position than the Prime Minister currently is. With some Conservative MPs suggesting they are only a dozen letters away from forcing a no-confidence vote in his leadership, it is clear that the Prime Minister will stop at nothing to save his own skin.

Johnson has long been a student of such tactics. In the same 2011 piece in which he compared Gordon Brown to Gadaffi, he also wrote about what happens when a leader clings to power long after they should have stepped aside.

“When a regime has been in power too long, when it has fatally exhausted the patience of the people, and when oblivion finally beckons – I am afraid that across the world you can rely on the leaders of that regime to act solely in the interests of self-preservation, and not in the interests of the electorate”, wrote Johnson.

A similar truth is now apparent about his own Downing Street “regime”. Cornered by the Metropolitan Police, a resurgent opposition and his own MPs, Johnson is increasingly taking big and often expensive decisions, the sole purpose of which appears to be to shore up his own short-term political position.

One example of this could be seen on Wednesday when Johnson announced at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions that he was scrapping the requirement to self-isolate with the coronavirus a month earlier than planned. This announcement came despite no new scientific evidence suggesting it was wise to do so, ITV reported.


The Conservative Smear Machine

Johnson’s desperate position means his reliance on the politics of smears is unlikely to fade. Indeed some reports already suggest we can expect him to attempt many more such smears against the Labour leader in the coming months and years.

Even if Johnson is ousted, the Conservative party will likely continue to use the same tactics. Long before Johnson became Prime Minister the Conservatives had developed a taste for dangerous political smears. Back in 2016, when David Cameron was in Downing Street, the party ran a ruthless campaign seeking to smear Labour’s London mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, by association, as an Islamic extremist.

The substance of the allegations – that he had represented people as a lawyer with extreme views – was used to falsely paint Khan by association in the minds of voters as a dangerous Islamist. The tactic was described at the time as a “dog whistle” approach to politics, designed to be heard by those who were already inclined to being prejudiced against Khan.

As part of the campaign, the Conservatives targeted non-Muslim ethnic minority groups in London with leaflets seeking to exploit the “extremism” fears they had raised, while also falsely warning that Khan planned to take away their family jewellery.

When I later discovered evidence that the Conservatives’ own candidate Zac Goldsmith had even deeper associations with some of the people the party were using to smear Khan with, the attacks continued regardless. On the eve of the vote, Goldsmith wrote a piece for the Mail accusing Khan’s party of being in league with terrorists, which was accompanied by a picture of an exploded London bus. Khan has since revealed that he now faces pretty much constant threats to the safety of himself and his family from the far right.

This was not a campaign that was isolated in London either. Despite all of the recent attempts from some quarters to laud her supposed decency compared to Johnson, the party’s smears against Khan were also repeatedly endorsed publicly by Theresa May. Unlike the Savile smear, which first emerged on the far-right, before being repeated by Johnson, the smears against Khan came directly from the Conservative Party’s own campaign machine.


‘Swiftboating’

Like many other things which belatedly come to prominence in the UK, this approach to politics has taken inspiration from some of the worst tactics used in the US for decades.

In particular, the Republican campaign tactic of ‘Swiftboating’ – named after an unfounded smear campaign launched against Democrat candidate John Kerry in 2004 -has served as a model for some of what we are now seeing in the UK.

Back then false allegations against Kerry were ruthlessly used to damage him, despite the fact that they had no basis in truth. It now looks likely that whichever Conservative leader goes into the next general election, we can expect a similar approach to be used against Starmer again.

Johnson’s dishonesty and apparent relish in using such dangerous tactics means that they are now finally starting to get the sort of attention and condemnation they deserve in the UK.

However, such tactics did not begin with either Trump or Johnson, and they will likely continue long after both men have gone.

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