With Boris Johnson’s demise, the true believers of the Brexit revolution have sensed their opportunity, writes Jon Bloomfield

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Many believe the Prime Ministership of Boris Johnson has been the worst political experience of their lifetime. His mixture of outright lies; contempt for democratic processes and laws; and chaotic, incompetent and corrupt Government has embarrassed many Conservative voters and made the country a laughing stock.

Yet, contrary to Labour’s optimistic 1997 election slogan, the Conservative leadership contest suggests that UK politics is about to get a whole lot worse.

Rishi Sunak running as the orthodox economic Thatcherite looks to be losing heavily to Liz Truss, the born-again Brexiter presenting herself as an insurgent running against the ‘establishment’, with the fervent support of most of the country’s billionaire press.

Johnson was the stalking horse for the evangelical Brexit-right: the amiable buffoon with a reach into working-class communities, able to bring together a new class coalition around Brexit but without the commitment and attention span necessary to carry it through to a strategic conclusion.

The Brexit revolutionaries – those who believe in the low tax, deregulated, small state utopia of Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, the vision of Britannia Unchained – have been disappointed. In the words of their latest guru, Lord David Frost, we have seen a “reversion to establishment policy-making norms” thwarting the insurgent potential of “the Brexit revolt”. 

With Johnson’s demise, the true believers have sensed their opportunity.

The Mail, Telegraph, Express and Sun have all been leading the charge fed by columnists from the Spectator, Unherd and Spiked.

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Three of the original contenders – Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman and Liz Truss – have all sung from the same hymn sheet. The initial danger of a split was averted as the European Research Group – the organisers of the Brexit-right – swung behind Truss and the Mail and Telegraph then conducted a hatchet job on Penny Mordaunt for her supposed liberal flakiness on transgender issues. 

Their key ideologue has been the unlikely figure of Lord David Frost, the middle-ranking Foreign Office official, former UK Ambassador to Denmark, now catapulted into the front-rank of intellectual combat.

His latest essay – ‘Holy Illusions: Reality-based Politics and Sustaining the Brexit Revolt‘ – is the new gospel. Self-identified as “a robust intellectual analysis”, it is replete with the simplistic mantras – “lower taxes and higher profits”; “the state must shrink”; be “proud of our culture, values and history” – that Truss consistently repeats in her hustings soundbites to Conservative activists and in media interviews. 

But Lord Frost’s pamphlet offers clear insights into the core thinking of the Brexit revolutionaries.

Surprisingly, they belittle the achievements of Thatcherism. Neoliberalism has dominated British politics since the Thatcher era; the Blair Government did little to undo its core elements. Yet, 40 years after Thatcher’s revolution, the hard Brexiters fear that neoliberalism has reached its limits.

After the financial, climate and COVID crises, active government is back across the globe. Bizarrely, after 12 years of Conservative government, Lord Frost claims that “we have statist economics, green politics, an over mighty government… and are well on the road to a much more collectivist society”. His programme is designed to break that spell.

His nationalist platform has to deny the reality of modern economies. 

Lord Frost refuses to recognise that these can no longer be contained within the borders of the nation state. He claims – without a shred of evidence – that leaving the EU “puts all the levers back in our hands”. For a country that does half its trade with the EU and which, as its near neighbour, is bound to do a high volume of its trade with the EU in the future, believing that we can just ignore the EU and set our own regulatory standards makes no economic sense.

Unlike the leadership candidates, he at least acknowledges that “leaving the Single Market involves some costs” – but nowhere does he face up to the realities of an interdependent world and its economic consequences.

Crucially, Lord Frost discards two of Johnson’s key policy messages – both of which required active government intervention.

Firstly, he never once mentions ‘levelling-up’ – the core motif of the Johnson Government and a central element of his policy appeal to ‘left behind’ communities. Even in its most stripped-down, rhetorical form, the levelling-up agenda that Johnson trumpeted required significant sums of government expenditure.

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Secondly, Lord Frost acts as a climate denialist. There were profound shortcomings to Johnson’s 10 Point Action plan but it was a serious policy commitment which, again, relied on a flow of public investment. This is heresy to Lord Frost. He writes that there is no evidence of any climate emergency; claims electric cars are “unsatisfactory” (when a record 6.8 million were sold worldwide in 2021); and derides wind turbines as a “medieval technology” (when they produce a quarter of the UK energy mix and the latest auctions mean that it costs less than half the price of nuclear). 

Truss is regurgitating Lord Frost’s clichés and soundbites on the campaign trail. Against windfall taxes, “profit is not a dirty word”. Against green levies that pay for energy efficiency programmes and against solar farms and on-shore wind.

Lord Frost’s diagnosis suggests that the likely Truss Government would sheds its predecessor’s levelling-up and environmental agendas and turn increasingly to ‘culture wars’ to shore up its support among working-class and older voters.

Kemi Badenoch laid the ground in her leadership campaign and Truss has promised her a prominent role in Cabinet. The abusive tone of the cultural warriors is set by Lord Frost himself. Writing in the Telegraph, he compared those who created the Government’s energy policy to Chamberlainite appeasers and declared that “net zero proponents must be swept away from day one”. 

A Liz Truss Government is shaping up to be a fusion of nationalist trends on the hard-right. Where Boris Johnson was shambolic, Truss will be hard-working; where he zig-zagged, she’ll be ram-rod straight.

Whether the simplistic mantras can withstand contact with reality, as we’ve seen with the cost of living crisis, is more uncertain. But what we’re about to experience is the most determined effort yet to enforce a hard-right, nationalist strategy onto the UK.

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