How the Populist Zeitgeist changed Britain: A study of how mainstream political parties responded, and were changed by, the populist discourse on immigration and the European Union


The response of the mainstream political parties in the United Kingdom has been to refuse the perceived ‘populists’ an opportunity of governing. Despite this, the meteoric rise of political parties once considered to be on the populist fringe of UK politics can be considered to have changed the political discourse and the mainstream parties themselves. 

This paper will focus on two strands of this discourse: Euro-scepticism and anti-immigration. Mudd further describes it as separating society into two homogenous groups: the ‘corrupt elite’ and the general masses. Therefore, Mudd’s critique of populism can be considered the creation anti-populist narrative which reinforces their marginalization and demonization in the political discourse and debate in the UK. 

Author: Hugh Hamish Matthews

BA (Hons) Sociology, April 2020

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Methodology Section: Qualitative Interviews
  3. The Foundational grown of Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom:  How Prime Ministers David Cameron’s Government rhetorically embraced populist language on immigration
  4. Brexit: A seminal moment of change for The United Kingdoms political discourse
  5. Mainstream Governmental Responses the growth of the  Eurosceptic discourse
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography


Thanks to, Dr Alexander Ornella and The Social Sciences team at The University of Hull for organising my semester abroad, for which I am very grateful. Claire Fox MEP and Dr Richard Corbett MEP and their teams for  helping organise my interviews for this paper.

1 Introduction

The response of the mainstream political parties in the United Kingdom has been to refuse the perceived ‘populists’ an opportunity of governing. Despite this, the meteoric rise of political parties once considered to be on the populist fringe of UK politics can be considered to have changed the political discourse and the mainstream parties themselves. 

In the context of the democracies on the European continent there have been a variety of different strategies to include, or exclude populists from government. European countries have a selection of different voting systems, largely dominated by proportional representation systems. This means that marginal populist parties can achieve a wide representation if they garner popular support (David Marquand 1999). Examples of ‘populist’ parties entering government in Europe can be found with the Austrian far right ‘Freedom Party’ (BBC  2017) supporting the traditional centre-right party. Also, the Italian election of 2018 led to the two populist parties ‘The Five Star Movement’ and ‘Le Lega’ entering Government (Jason Horowitz ,2018); the Spanish centre-left mainstream party entered into Government with a left wing socialist populist party ‘Podemos’ in 2019 (Sam Jones,2020). Germany and France have a corresponding outlook to the UK in that they perceive  populist parties should be prevented from entering Government . This is outlined by the rise of Le Penn in France representing the anti European Union argument and the growth of the AFD in Germany. Both of these were condemned by mainstream parties as xenophobic.

The UK’s voting system is a majoritarian first past the post system. This is designed for two political parties which represent the population, with one in government and the other in opposition (Flinders Matthew, 2010). Coalitions have taken place when one party has received the largest share of seats corresponding with votes, but not enough for a governing majority. An example of this was the 2010 General Election resulted in a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government (BBC,2010). Historic examples include Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1974, which was supported by smaller parties (Julia Langdon, 2015). Theresa Mays’ government also relied on the Democratic Unionist Party in the 2017 General Election (Henry Mance et al, 2017). In the history of the UK populists have not formed governments, or been part of a coalition, therefore being frozen out of the governing discourse and marginalized. (Despite the lack of governing experience) in the UK’s political history, Euro-sceptic beliefs have had influence in the mainstream discourse. For example, leader of the Labour Party from 1965-1662 Hugh Gaitskell opposed the UK joining the EU from an economic perspective, stating “There is no really compelling economic argument for Britain’s joining…” (Hugh Gaitskell M.P, 1962, 1p). This political discourse regarding the UK losing its identity and economic strength was further perorated by a Conservative Party minster, Enoch Powell in his ‘Rivers of Blood speech’, in which Powell (1968) argued that British citizens were poorly treated, due to the Race Relations Act of 1968. This became a touchstone for right-leaning political politics who feared the imposition of EU immigration measures. In the UK this undercurrent of Euro-scepticism appeared in isolated examples, but a firm anti-integration argument against the UK joining the Euro currency remained in the mainstream, voiced by Margaret Thatcher’s government from 1979-1991. Euro-sceptic mass political movements did not gain momentum until the fall from power of PM Gordon Brown’s Labour Party in 2010; thus leading to the rise of David Cameron’s Conservative Party’s coalition with the Liberal Democrats. 

In 2013, Mudd, a political scientist from the Netherlands, studied extremists and political populism in the United Kingdom and the United States (a critique which will be examined as part of this dissertation). He delineated that populist zeitgeist was a ‘thin centred ideology’. This ‘thin centred’ nature is because it is a discourse which has often grown around a single issue, therefore appearing simplistic and emotional. 

This paper will focus on two strands of this discourse: Euro-scepticism and anti-immigration. Mudd further describes it as separating society into two homogenous groups: the ‘corrupt elite’ and the general masses. Therefore, Mudd’s critique of populism can be considered the creation anti-populist narrative which reinforces their marginalization and demonization in the political discourse and debate in the UK. 

Mainstream political parties in the UK have their ideological routes and precedents in historical social and political movements throughout the UK history. As such, they have a wide variety of policies and views on numerous political topics, as a result of being in government and fulfilling their democratic mandate. Thomas M. Meyer’s (2015) definition of mainstream political parties will be used in this dissertation. He delineates that these parties are often fundamentally liberal, and focus on maintaining the systematic salience of government institutions, upholding the political status quo. For the purpose of this dissertation, this status quo was focused on the UK membership of the European Union, and the political discourses existing around this regarding immigration.

The central analysis of this dissertation is to map out how the political mainstream discourse regarding immigration and the UK’s relationship with the EU has changed as a result of the rise of Euro-sceptic parties in the UK. This narrative will be outlined in the second half of the dissertation by contrasting how the parties have changed their political strategy towards those in opposition to them and how the term ‘populist’ can be considered as marginalising specific arguments in the political discourse. 

The first section of this dissertation will outline how I organize unstructured qualitative interviews  of the Brexit Party Member of the European Parliament  Claire Fox and Labour Party Member Of the European Parliament and critically analyse the methodical approach taken in collecting and implementing the results.

The first chapter of this dissertation will critically interview how Prime Ministers David Cameron’s Government adopted Euro-sceptic rhetoric in order to improve the Conservative Party’s electoral chances in response to the immigration crisis of 2015, and also the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party. The aim of this chapter is that it will outline the foundational starting point of how mainstream parties began influenced by populist political rhetoric.

The penultimate chapter of this paper will critically analyse how PM Cameron’s government set the foundations for the United Kingdom to vote to leave the European Union. This chapter will consider how Brexit fundamentally changed mainstream political parties’ legislation to accept to populist arguments on the UK relationship with the EU and immigration. Also, this chapter twos aim is to critically delineate how Prime Minister Boris Johnson cultivated and adopted otherwise considered fringe arguments on immigration and the EU in the referendum campaign in 2017. Also, how his Government in 2019 rejected pluralist forms of Governance.  

 The final chapter critically analyses how PM Cameron attempted to marginalise Nigel Farage MEP and UKIP, defining them as xenophobic and irrational. Alongside this, the final chapter will consider if PM Cameron’s Government could be considered in effect and responsible for the Eurosceptic discourse.   Furthermore, this chapter will compare the changes in PM Johnson’s political strategy against interviews in the General Election of 2019 with PM Cameron’s strategy, and  how PM Johnson once in Government  sort to eclipse and fragment the Eurosceptic discourse. This dissertation will chronologically outline how the Eurosceptic discourse has been defined as populism and fringe, and through Events such as Migrant Crisis of 2015  and Brexit it became mainstream gradually through rhetorical use and then eventually  existing legislatively pertaining to the two themes of immigration and the UK relationship with the EU.

2 Methodology Section: Qualitative Interviews


Claire Fox , Brexit Party, Member of The European Parliament 

Richard Corbett, Labour Party, Member of The European I 

The methodological approach of research for this paper is to use two unstructured qualitative interviews that took place in Brussels in 2019. The respondents were the Labour leader in the European Parliament Richard Corbett, and Claire Fox MEP for the Brexit Party. To qualify the analysis of this paper it will use a combination of primary speeches from mainstream political parties and government policy relating to their policy on immigration and the UK’s political and rhetorical relationship with The Europe Union. These interviews took place during my Erasmus exchange semester in 2019 whilst I studied with Utrecht University, Netherlands. 

To conduct these interviews I travelled to Brussels from Utrecht via  and met the MEP’s personal assistants outside the European Parliament Brussels underground. Upon being picked up, I was escorted to their offices where I then conducted the unstructured qualitative interviews and recorded them using a portable microphone which I connected to my smartphone. Previously, I had communicated with other MEPs from the Conservative Party, and the Liberal Democrat Party to try and organise interviews regarding my dissertation topic. However, I concluded that organising meetings with two MEPs from two diverging political discourses would allow this paper to go into depth in comparing and contrasting the data collected. During the organisation of the interviews, I conducted a health and safety check with the University of Hull and created consent forms which were approved by the University of Hull Social Sciences Department. This means that my interviews meet with the guidelines for what is considered safe, and also relevant research to my topic. Both of the MEPs signed the consent form accepting that I can use their real names and opinions throughout the course of my research.

I used a method of edited transcriptions in order to transcribe the interviews from my smartphone into a word document. This was achieved through listening to the interviews and writing down the respondents’ answers onto a word document on my computer, both respondents were on the same document for ease of comparison. The process of edited transcription meant that I could select the responses from my qualitative data that I perceived was the most rich in information and relevant to the debate on how populism has changed mainstream political parties and the Mainstream parties political strategy against it the perceived populists. 

In the final chapter of this paper I used both respondents’ views on what they consider a populist to be and how it is formed in the political discourse.  

This methodological approach was an interactional exchange of dialogue between me and the respondent, and focused on the principle of openness and plurality. Prior to the interviews, I had researched both respondents using the European Parliament website (MEPs European Parliament,2017). From this I was able to outline what commissions they were involved with, and their political background. This meant I could tailor the unstructured questions to the political background of the respondents. By organising my questions into relevant themes this meant that situated knowledge can be produced resulting in the construction or reconstruction of knowledge. 

To research how mainstream political parties have responded to the rise of populism, unstructured qualitative interviews can be considered highly effective. Minna et al (2014) stated that by formulating and asking questions which develop from the respondents responses allows the interviewer to clarify the direction of their research and improve the relevance of data collected. For this study, by using qualitative interviews, it meant that I could explore the nuances of the definition of ‘populism’. This meant I could directly understand how the Brexit and Labour Party MEPs demonstrated how mainstream parties had responded and changed as a result of populist discourse. This provides a broad set of perspectives on the origins of populism and definitions. Therefore , when I was creating the interview question in order to maintain the comparative nature of my research I decided to keep certain interview questions the same for both respondents so I could clearly contrast the responses of politicians on my chosen topic of how mainstream parties changed and responded to Eurosceptic and anti-immigration populist movements , these were:

“What is a populist?”

“What has been the political strategy against the rise of populism in the United Kingdom?”

structured interviews can equally be considered problematic. Esterberg (2002) stated that it can be difficult for individuals to accurately and honestly explain details regarding respondent’s opinion on the chosen research topic. This can undermine the integrity of the data collected. To avoid this undermining the authenticity of this paper’s evidence, the researched themes for unstructured questions remained relevant to the respondent’s political context and respected their opinion as valid within the political discourse they exist in. This aimed to avoid an emotional, un-rational response, which would damage the legitimacy of the collected data. Once the data had been collected from the interviews, I wrote up a transcript of the recorded responses of the MEPs. This collation of data is important for comparing and analysing the MEP’s arguments – despite it being a time-consuming exercise. Upon comparing the responses, it allowed me, as the researcher, to outline the responses which were the richest in detail, and most relevant to the dissertation topic. 

Furthermore, to augment this dissertation argumentation further, primary sources from speeches and interviews from leading Conservative Party politicians will be considered. This is in order to analyse any rhetorical change of mainstream politicians. It is important to focus on leading figures within the Conservative Party because this is the political party which has been in government for the period which this paper is critically analysing, therefore they are considered the ‘mainstream’.

This paper will also compare government policy regarding immigration and Europe to that of the more populist Brexit and UKIP policies outlined during General Elections held between 2010-2019, and the 2016 referendum on leaving or remaining within the EU. Baumgartner (1981) specifically outlined that the benefits of using primary evidence are crucial, because it means that the evidence is untarnished and has not been interpreted and changed by another narrative. Despite this, using primary evidence to support the dissertation argument can undermine the chosen topic and themes of the dissertation because the argument is limited to my contextual understanding of the primary evidence. Therefore, to extend the argument and further improve its accessibility and legitimacy this paper will use contemporary secondary sources to define and support my argument. 

3 The Foundational grown of Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom:  How Prime Ministers David Cameron’s Government rhetorically embraced populist language on immigration.

3.1 Historical Context in rise of Eurosceptic populist movements 

The growth of Euro-scepticism and the increase in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party was crystallisedin the immigration crisis of 2015. This led to mainstream political parties’ adoption of ‘populist’ immigration . UKIP’s meteoric rise within the political scene in 2015 began in 2010, when Nigel Farage, MEP, became the leader (succeeding Roger Knapman) (Hunt, BBC News, 2014). This change of leadership and improved political messaging discipline and was essential to UKIP’s democratic gains. UKIP grew from opposition to the Labour Government’s commitment to the free movement of people, and its perceived failure during the financial crash of 2008 (which was central to the decline of mainstream support for the Labour Party). This failure of the mainstream parties in fulfilling the wishes of the electorate resulted in the increased popularity of more radical fringe parties, such as UKIP, Britain First or (any left-wing equivalents?). This is delineated by respondent Richard Corbett, MEP:

“When mainstream parties are perceived to make a mess of things that means the electorate is more likely to vote for an anti-system party” (Richard Corbett MEP, 2019).

UKIP built on this support of ‘anti-systems’ parties and their membership grew from 15,535 in 2010, to an all-time high of 32,447 in 2013. This increase meant that UKIP was earning more capital from its members. By using this electoral momentum, UKIP went on to come first in the European Election with 27.5% of the vote in 2014, pushing the Conservative Party to third place and the Labour Party to second  (Hunt, BBC, 2014). Due to a larger electoral representation of UKIP in the European Parliament, the party itself received payments which increased its capital. MEPs earned a wage which could be contributed to the UKIP finances. This increased financial power meant that the party could improve its social media strategy and centralise support. These technological improvements in social media are known as ‘the rise Facebook and Twitter’ (Corey, 2012). This enabled an increase in communication and organization between supporters which was not previously possible. Richard Corbett, MEP, defined how fringe political parties use social media to allow for their members to communicate and share their ideas:

“Social media…often gets clusters of like-minded people…people who were previously isolated, … can easily form groups and clusters, reinforcing people views, fragmenting the political system” (Richard Corbett MEP, 2019)

The development of UKIP’s social media narrative allowed UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, to manipulate events in 2015 to publicise his political narrative and coerce mainstream parties into responding to UKIP’s populist discourse on immigration. Stone (Independent Newspaper, 2015) reported that Farage blamed the EU’s policy of free movement of people on the Paris terrorist attacks, of13th November 2015. Similarly, Ben Riley-Smith (2015, Telegraph) described how Farage cited a ‘Migrant Crisis’,  in January 2015. These two instances are a clear example of UKIP stoking fears in the UK regarding immigration. Capitalising on these concerns was achieved by making the freedom of movement, which came with the UK’s membership of the EU, synonymous with the spread of terrorism. Smith reported this on this when Farage in 2015 stated: 

“…thousands of ISIL fighters and terrorists could use the immigration crisis to flood Europe” 

(Ben Riley-Smith, 2015, The Telegraph Online).

3.2 Prime Minister David Cameron’s adoption of populist rhetoric 

UKIP’s focus on immigration and Euro-scepticism caused an increase in electoral support for UKIP in the period 2010-2015, and the development of media and online narratives influenced attitudes to immigration. Therefore, in order to appeal to this new attitude of the electorate, mainstream political parties sought to change their immigration policies to emulate those of populist parties. This was done by imitating their rhetoric, offering to cut immigration, and curb EU influence. In my interview with Richard Corbett, MEP, (2019), his view was that the rise of UKIP had been central to the Conservative Party becoming more anti-immigration. He stated: 

“The refugee crisis leads to mainstream parties to emulating populist arguments on immigration” (Richard Corbett, 2019).

Greven (2016) argued that in 2015 the incumbent Conservative Government, (led by PM David Cameron), feared UKIP’s success in the 2014 European Elections would spread to the UK General Election in 2015. This fear is what can largely be considered the contributing factor to gradually accepting the populist view on immigration policies. This shifting of policies is evident as Cameron’s Government sought to symbolise a shift from the ‘uncontrolled immigration’ of the Labour era (Nicholas Watt, 2015).  This political manipulation is outlined in an ‘Immigration and Asylum’ report (Melanie Gower et al, 2015), which outlines how the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government wanted to control immigration; their objective being “good immigration, not mass immigration” (Melanie Gower et al, 2015). Greven (2016) suggests that commitment to reduce immigration to less than 100,000, and  pushing EU nationals to a status of plurality with immigrants from outside the EU was largely to appeal to Euro-sceptic voters who could prevent the  Conservative Party gaining a majority in the 2015 General Election. Despite the argument that Cameron’s Government were trying to emulate populist discourse, Nicholas Watt (2015) reported that these attempts to reduce immigration were not driven by the growth of the populist discourse. Instead, the Conservative Government’s aim was to reduce the strain on public services and welfare from large-scale immigration and allowing more room in the labour market for UK citizens. Therefore, allowing more investment into British workers. He states:

“…This brings together issues around skills and welfare reform to ensure that people can progress through the labour market and that work always pays, the measures around the border and border force-related issues” (Nicholas Watt,The Guardian, 2015).

This argument can be considered flawed, as Oxfam and the Amnesty International had both criticised Cameron’s Government for not taking in enough refugees, describing the response as “inadequate” (BBC NEWS, 2016). This shows that the Conservative Party’s commitment to liberalising welfare and making the economy more dynamic was driven by the Euro-sceptic ideas.

 The implementation of cuts in immigration policy in order to improve the UK economy is an example of Mudd’s (2013) description of a populist, ‘thin centred ideology’,regarding immigration gradually being accepted into the mainstream political discourse. PM Cameron’s Conservative government partially perpetrated this reductionist approach by outlining that the economic markets would become more liberal and dynamic with a reduction in immigration. Furthermore, Cameron’s Government began using populist rhetoric to conflate the migrant crisis and EU freedom of movement.   

3.3 How PM David Cameron conflated the Migrant crisis with The Europeans Unions ‘Freedom of movements of labour’

The Conservative Party began mimicking UKIP’s rhetorical language during the migrant crisis as a result of the anti-immigration discourse becoming embedded into the mainstream debate. Alternatively, UKIP leader Nigel Farage, MEP, defended mainstream use of populist language as the Conservative Party becoming ‘harder’ on immigration.  In an interview in July 2015, PM David Cameron described migrants that were escaping conflict in Syria as a ‘Swarm’ (BBC NEWS, 2016). Drymioti et al (2020) argued that when leading mainstream politicians define the large migration of refugees as a ‘swarm’ or a ‘crisis’, such language is highly influenced by racism and xenophobia. This fundamentally shows that during the refugee crisis of 2015, the Conservative Party used this rhetorical language in order to respond to their perception of the anti-immigration views of the electorate. 

Despite the embracing of populist rhetoric, PM Cameron’s government produced a report regarding the Syria migration to Europe and how the government would accept 20,000 refugees over the next 5 years (working with European governments and the United Nations (Justin Greening, MP, Gov. UK, 2015). This suggests that the language chosen for the interview by PM Cameron was for electoral benefit rather than government policy. (This also marks a clear difference between PM Cameron and current PM Johnson’s political discourse which will be explored later in this paper.)  Not-with-standing this, the government’s effort to re-house migrants was criticised by UK charities. Mayblin (2020) argued that UK charities lobbying the government described its response to the immigration as not being humanitarian enough, as the UK was not accepting enough immigrants to the UK. This suggests that the government was legitimising a ‘thin centred’ ideology due to its fear of being seen as pro-immigration and losing electoral power to UKIP. 

In the period from 2015-2016 the Home Office released a report which stated hate crimes based on ethnicity had risen by 29%; and notably during the  UK’s EU Referendum (Hannah Corcoran et al, Official Statistics). This embodies Mudd’s (2003) definition of populism in which the salience of the pluralist system is undermined by harbouring prejudice views against minorities. Moreover, Gietel-Basten (2016) argues that the government was making migration synonymous with the Syrian refugee ‘crisis’. This emotive language and anti-migration rhetoric brought anti pluralistic and  arguments on migration into the public psyche. This could be argued as  legitimising individuals who commit hate crimes and thus normalising the populist demagogue view on refugees. PM Cameron further enabled Eurosceptic populists  by blaming the EU for immigration and thus accepting the populist discourse on the EU. 

3.4 How Prime Minister David Cameron’s referendum commitment legitimised fringe Eurosceptic movements 

PM David Cameron pledged in 2013 that the UK would hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. This can be considered a pivotal moment where fringe ‘populilst’ became mainstream politicians represented such as Nigel Farage MEP who was part of  wider urosceptic discourse. 

 In the build up to the 2015 General Election, PM David Cameron offered a ‘simple in out’ referendum (BBC News, 2013) as a manifesto promise: 

Have an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017” (Frances Perraudin, 2015, The Guardian Online)

This pledge can be considered a reaction the growth of UKIP as an electoral force, which emboldened the confidence of the Euro-sceptic members of the Conservative Party. PM Cameron (2019) argued that his party’s historic commitment to a referendum was merely in line with other establishment parties committing to having a referendum at different dates within the last decade. He asserted: 

“every party was under pressure on this issue… every single political party in Britain fought an election between 2005 and 2015 with a pledge to hold a referendum” (Reality Check team BBC,2019)

Matthijs (2013) critiques this view by arguing that PM Cameron wanted to halt the growth of UKIP, and silence the Euro-sceptic sections of the Conservative Party through a referendum in which he perceived he could easily defeat the Euro-sceptic discourse. This naive attempt to quell Euro-scepticism can be seen as an underestimation of the arguments for leaving the EU which were gradually becoming assumed by the electorate. Matthijs (2013) further explains that Cameron’s criticism of the EU  previously allowed for the populist view to become the mainstream. Patrick Winour (2012) reported that Cameron blamed the EU for the ‘double dip recession’ he stated:

“UK dependence on these markets, was one reason why the US economy was growing faster than that of the UK” (Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, 2012).

This blaming of the Euro-zone for the poor growth of UK markets was a direct result of the austerity policies enacted by the 2010-2015 governments (Larry Elliott, The Guardian, 2019). PM Cameron rhetorically pandered toward Euro-scepticism by making the EU’S monetary policies the centre of his blame for poor growth. Glencross (2018) argued that Cameron’s government was creating the correct conditions for the growth of populism; this was through the ‘politics of simple solution’. This was due to the fact that by accepting the populist narrative for a referendum the fringe parties could offer a single solution to a multitude of political grievances and capitalise on the Euro-sceptic discourse which was being supported rhetorically by mainstream parties. Therefore, the Conservatives Party’s implementation of a referendum further shows how the Conservative parties accepted the critical discourse on the EU.

4 Brexit: A seminal moment of changefor The United Kingdoms political discourse

4.1 Contemporary political history of European referendum and its preceding events 

Contextually, Eurosceptic populist influence on the UK’s political discourse reached its zenith during the EU Referendum (with Britain voting to leave the EU on 23rd June 2016), and the political downfall of PM Theresa May’s government.  The leave vote thus pushed the Conservative government to openly commit to leaving the EU. This lead to the downfall of pro-European PM David Cameron’s Government as they had largely argued for Britain remaining in the EU (Mason, The Guardian,2016). After Cameron stepped down a leadership contest took place to replace the UK’s departing Prime Minister. Theresa May, MP, won. May was perceived as a mainstream moderate in the Conservative Party, who supported the UK’s membership of the EU, and was the Home Secretary in PM David Cameron’s Government from 2010-2016 The main aim of her government was to negotiate a so called ‘Brexit’ deal that the UK parliament could accept and the EU member states could ratify, allowing  the UK to leave the EU.

May’s  deal negotiated with the EU for the UK’s exit was rejected three times by the Houses of Commons (Dan Sabbagh, The Guardian, 2019). This inability of May’s government to pass her deal through the parliamentary legislation was because her government had lost its parliamentary majority in the 2017 General Election: an election  called in an attempt to increase the Conservative Party’s governing majority on the 6th  June 2017. As a result of this election, the Conservative Party was reduced to a minority government with Theresa May relying on the votes of the  Northern Irish political party, the Democratic Union Party (DUP) to vote on  government bills (Henry Mance et al, Financial Times Online, 2017). Despite this confidence and supply arrangement, the DUP did not support Theresa May’s withdrawal deal from the EU due to issues surrounding the Irish backstop. Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties  opposed this form of exiting the EU (Dan Sabbagh, The Guardian, 2019). As a result of the failure of the government to pass this important legislature, PM Theresa May called a leadership election, which lead to her resignation to give way to newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, MP (BBC, 2017).

In PM May’s resignation speech, she emphasised the need for compromise in politics, “all sides of the debate are willing to compromise” (PM Theresa May, 2019), and also quoted her predecessors, PM David Cameron and Chancellor George Osbourne, defining her Government’s legacy through austerity and budget deficit aims of their Governments:

“We have completed the work that David Cameron and George Osborne..Austerity is coming to a end” (PM Theresa May, 2019).

Scuira (2017) described how the UK’s vote to leave the EU was a seminal moment which crystallised the Euro-sceptic influenced support in a Euro-sceptic Conservative Party. Theresa May’s departure from the frontline of politics and the rise of Boris Johnson is symbolic of this argument. The ideology of the mainstream salient Conservatives regarding compromise and pluralism had been replaced by the ideological purity of the Euro-sceptic discourse. This clear restructuring of the mainstream was emphasised during the referendum campaign and has continued throughout Boris Johnson’s premiership to date. In the next section of this paper I will critically analyse how Boris Johnson capitulated to the mainstream discourse of ‘thin centred populism’, and how his form of governance has elements of a populist demagogy.

4.2 How the rhetorical influence of Eurosceptic movements in the 2016 Referendum fundamentally changed the discourses of mainstream politicians  

The Euro-sceptic leave campaigners asserted the principles of a ‘thin centred’ ideological criticism of the EU, thus setting the foundation for Boris Johnson to integrate populism into the mainstream political discourse. Despite this, the criticism of populism could be due to its perceived lack of understanding surrounding the UK’s membership of EU institutions. The populist argument that was espoused by mainstream politicians had its roots in the amount of capital the UK would receive on leaving the EU. This in turn had its rhetorical roots in the Cameron government’s ‘simple solution politics’ .  An illustration of this is the claim made by the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who maintained that the UK would receive £350 million back from the EU which was the cost of the UK’s membership. He stated; 

“We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead” (BBC NEWS, 2018).

This claim was ostensibly based on the Institute of Financial Statistics’ report in order legitimise itself, and so as not to be brushed away as a tangential argument. The report stated that in 2015 the UK gave £11 billion towards the EU’s overall budget as a result of its membership (Institute of Financial Statistics FS, 2018). Anushka Asthana(The Guardian, 2017) reported Johnson’s claim that this money could be used to support the National Health Service once the UK had left the EU’s institutions:

“Johnson argued that Britain should not continue to make payments to the EU after Brexit and claimed that staying in the single or customs union would in effect betray the referendum vote” (The  Guardian Online, 2016).

Baldini et al (2017) reflect Mudd’s critique of populism. This  outlines how emotional arguments about ‘the masses’ being pitted against  powerful politicians is evident within Johnson’s claim that the money would be returned from the EU and the emotional use the word betrayal portrays a populist emotive sentiment  . Johnson’s assertion of this large figure , and his eulogising of how the capital will be taken and reinvested into the UK’s public resources can be considered a clear example of a senior mainstream politician using populist notions of a powerful elite benefiting from UK capital. This emphasises Scuira’s (2017) argument that the Brexit vote enabled and energised the populist growth within mainstream discourse because it vocalised and legitimised the Eurosceptic argument which had been cultivated in response to the UKs membership of the EU. 

Furthermore, Baldenit et al (2017) describe how during the referendum, mainstream politicians opted for the populist depiction of ‘historical national sovereignty’ which was being lost as a result of the UK’s membership of the EU. This populist narrative of sovereignty was perpetrated by Nigel Farage at the Doncaster annual conference in 2015: “we want our country back” (BBC, News, 2015).

This definition and idea of sovereignty is defined by Vivian A Schmidt (2014) as an example of the power which is vested in the executive and legislature. Johnson further expounds this idea of UK sovereignty being transferred to the EU in an interview in 2016; stating that the UK should “take back control”( BBC News, 2016). This suggests that he utilised this view of the UK losing its identity as the EU becomes ever more focused on a  closer union and a federalised Europe. Baldenit et al (2017) argue that this attitude builds on the foundation of anti-immigration discourse in which UK citizens feel their identities are lost due to immigration. He suggests that this is a deliberate exacerbation of populist arguments in order to gain electoral success. This shows how Conservative ideology adapted to Euro-sceptic growth among the electorate. Populism further influenced the Conservative ideology as mainstream politicians adopted anti-intellectual views in order to perpetuate their own Euro-scepticism.

4.3 How the Conservative Party adopted the anti intellectual discourse of populist demagogues 

A poignant example of the Brexit Referendum campaign was when the then Euro-sceptic Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, MP, stoked anti-intellectualism in order to divide the electorate  against institutions favouring the UK staying in the EU. Despite this, after the referendum had taken place Gove, MP, argued that institutions should be critically analysed in the advice that is given and that he was merely ‘speaking up for the underdog (Tom Farrar, Chatham House, 2017). Upon Britain voting, 52% voted to leave and 48% to remain .Nigel Farage, MEP, declared victory, and  described  the campaign to leave the EU as a huge people power based movement against a  wealthy, educated elite, fuelled by corruption. He stated: 

“We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks, we have fought against big politics, we have fought against lies, corruption and deceit” (Adam Withnall, The Independent, 2016).

Mudd depicts populist discourse as being an ideology which defines society as being structured of the ‘masses’ versus a corrupt, out of touch, small, and bureaucratic elite, of which this is a clear example. This form of compartmentalising groups in society allows for populists to stoke prejudices and resentment in groups within society, and outlines that populisms have little tolerance for other discourses. This narrative was perpetuated into the mainstream by Gove, MP. He argued three weeks before the Referendum that the British people did not appreciate the condescending views of intellectuals and institutions sharing views based on their research. This critique was reported on national television and can be considered to be aimed at university academics and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He stated: “Britain has had enough of experts” (Henry Mance, Financial Times, 2016).

Sarah Robinson et al (2017) argued that a key characteristic Euro-sceptic populist discourse is the division between groups in society due to their race, religion and wealth. The UK leaving the EU became a vehicle for these new divisions to appear and further divide the society as a result of the referendum. Gove endorsed mistrust of intellectual institutions in a attempt to break down the trust between researchers and the general public. This can be seen as an extension of Farage’s populist movement. This perpetuated the idea of society being exploited and lied to by an elite that works for vested interests and not the general public. She states: “Brexit …leaving Britain deeply divided along the lines of not only race and nationality, but also age, class, education, regional differences and urbanisation” (Sarah Robinson, 2017, 2).

The conceptualisation of those who are from less economically developed areas of the country as the ‘under dogs’ is a succinct example of mainstream politicians applying anti-pluralist and illiberal paradigms which focus on intolerance. It does not allow for reasoned debate based on research and critical analyses, which leads to the fragmentation and polarisation of society. Mudd’s (2013) depiction of populism is unambiguous in this example of the mainstream politician pandering to the  perceived emotional response of the ‘masses’ in relation to academic and scientific research and views. Embracing populist narratives and applying an anti-scrutiny populist form of government is evident in the PM Johnson’s government post-2019 General Election. 

4.4 Prime Ministers Boris Johnson accepting of Eurosceptic pertaining to UKs relationship with the EU and his Government’s immigration policy

In 2019, Boris Johnson’s government embraced the influence of populism further with regard to the growth of anti-immigration discourse heavily influencing government policy. Also, His government rejected pluralist values by avoiding democratic scrutiny from the legislature and from the media. Johnson’s government argues that immigration policy is an example of how immigration can be made more dynamic. Throughout Cameron’s government of 2010-2016, the harbouring of anti-immigration sentiment existed within its rhetoric in order to counter the UKIP narrative and maintain the support of Euro-sceptic Conservatives within the electorate (as referenced earlier in this dissertation). This populist language became part of policy in Johnson’s government. 

In 2017, UKIP’s manifesto commitment on immigration built on the ban on unskilled labour in the 2015 UKIP manifesto (quote), which stated: “limit highly-skilled work visas to 50,000 per annum, including those from the EU” (Ben Quinn, The Guardian Online , 2015).

This was achieved by calling a ‘moratorium’ on unskilled workers for five years after Brexit; this was aimed at allowing British low skilled workers to have more job opportunities, thus making the economy more dynamic. Furthermore, UKIP wanted to reinstate the British blue passport, which had been phased out in 1988 and replaced by burgundy EU Model in the?(2017 Manifesto, BBC, 2017). This can be considered as the crux of populist discourse because it allows individuals to re-gain a supposed loss of identity. This policy was continued in the 2019 General Election by the Brexit Party, largely represented by ex-UKIP MEP’s in the EU and lead by Nigel Farage, MEP. In the 2019 General Election Farage, MEP, reasserted the commitment of UKIP to the 2015 General Election pledge of an Australian style points based immigration system.This would decide the eligibility of immigrant workers who wanted to move to the UK and also could be considered to make immigration more ‘fair’, as European migrants would be on an equal footing with non-EU migrants. This was elucidated in the Brexit Party manifesto as a: “fair points system and a crackdown on illegal immigration” (BBC News, 2017).

PM Cameron’s government of 2010-2016 was fundamentally influenced by populist rhetoric for electoral gain. But after the UK voted for Brexit and the moderate Conservatives lost the leadership of the Party, thus with the rise of PM Johnson’s populist narrative became woven into government policy. This is evident in the example of the government announcing that in March 2020 the ‘iconic’ blue passports will be brought back (UK Visa and Migration, 2020). Although this is a seemingly small similarity, Johnson’s government continued to implement policies which had long since been supported by UKIP and the Brexit party. The Home Office, controlled by ardent Brexiter Home Secretary Priti Patel, implemented identical policies to those offered by UKIP between 2015-2019. This included an application of a points based system and the ending of free movement into the UK. In a government report detailing this government’s policy updates, the Home Office stated: We will therefore end free movement and not implement a route for lower-skilled workers” (UK Visa and Migration, 2020).

The clear ideological links between the Brexit and Conservative parties reveal how the UK leaving of the EU was central to nationalist right-wing narrative pioneered by populists became accepted into mainstream governmental discourse on immigration. Jackie Hogan et al (2015) argue that right-wing political parties feared mass immigration because often they believe that this disrupts social cohesionand threatens to destroy national culture. Departing from the EU and ‘reclaiming’ control of immigration alongside the symbolic importance of changing the passport, shows how mainstream parties have accepted the populist rhetoric, and also the norms and values brought by it. This accepting of these new political paradigms is evident with the government’s immigration policy. 

This further emphasises Scuira’s (2017) argument that Brexit enabled and legitimised populism, and thus suggest the Johnson’s government could be considered an end point for the Euro-sceptic movement within the UK. Johnson’s government further embraced populism  in rejecting other pluralist principles. 

4.5 Prime Minister Johnson Eroding of pluralist values and adoption of populist demagogue 

Johnson’s government can be considered as anti-pluralist as a result of its rejection of political scrutiny and its reliance on advice from small groups of unelected individuals. Nethertheless, during times of crisis Johnson has referred to intellectuals and professionals; thus showing that his government is prepared to share authority.  Pluralism is the liberal critique of how society exists and functions; defining society as a large mass of interacting ideologies and principles which all have their own source of authority. Shawgi A. Tell (1996) defines this social connectedness and harmony, stating: “Pluralism rejects the notion of a single basic element which conditions the world. The world is comprised of several,, perhaps one hundred, discrete and diverse interacting things” (Tell, Shawgi A., 1996, 38).

This view dictates that pluralism supports societal tolerance and devolving of powers to prevent unfair coercive hierarchies. Also, pluralism encourages debate between existing groups in society; Dryzek (2006) argued this is the central aspect of pluralistic government because it allows the critical analysing of social institutions and how they affect wider society.  Governments which define themselves as pluralist, actively involve themselves in critical analyses of their own policy and devolve their own authority to non-governmental groups which can exert government influence. This shows that central government is willing to develop a symbiotic relationship with factions in society which may subscribe to different views and principles about how governments function. 

Johnson’s government sought to deviate from the traditions of pluralism in its relationship to scrutiny from the national press, by selectively choosing government supporting newspapers for press releases in order to make sure governmental policies are positively received. Rowena Mason (The Guardian, 2020) who reports for the centre-left supporting newspaper The Guardian, commented on advice from an unelected advisor which suggested that Johnson’s government would ban newspapers which did not support the government’s narrative on Europe and immigration: “Political journalists boycotted a Downing Street briefing on Monday after one of Boris Johnson’s aides banned selected reporters from attending” (Rowena Mason, The Guardian, 2020).

This attempted mitigation of newspapers critiquing government policies outlines Johnson’s rejection of pluralism, and how his government has moved to create a single, uncritically received narrative, in an attempt to adopt populist policies without media analysis. However, Johnson’s government’s reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic can be seen as a typical pluralist response. This is clear from how Johnson has organised press meetings with medical professionals – an example being in the PM’s statement of action regarding the Covid-19: “I am very glad to be joined this morning by the government’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor” (Public Health, Boris Johnson, 2020).

This can be considered highly important because previously Johnson and his colleagues had been scathing of professionals). This shows that during times of emergency Johnson’s government can devolve its authority to non-governmental organisations in order to create a rational narrative. Regardless of Johnson’s continued use of  use of pluralism during the present Covid-19 pandemic , his government can be seen to be continuing its rejection of pluralism by avoiding scrutiny from the legislature as well as the press.

This was clearly illustrated when Johnson avoided the Liaison committee and was found guilty of illegal proroguing  parliament; this mean that his Government could avoid scrutiny its legislation to make the UK leave the EU. Johnson did not attend the committee, his reason for this being: “I will come to the Liaison Committee and I will keep that promise but I am afraid I must now focus on delivering Brexit in the difficult circumstances in which we now find ourselves” (Rajeev Syal, The Guardian, 2019).

Furthermore, The Supreme Court who found PM Johnson guilty delineated  that his illegal closure of The Houses of Parliament was a clear subversion of the law. Supreme Court president Lady Hale stated this step towards populist demagogue, as an attempt to prevent democracy scrutiny and undermine the sovereignty of democratic institutions. Lady Hale states: “The decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification” (BBC News, 2019).

Rafal Ridel (2017) argues that mainstream politicians accept populist demagogue  values regarding scrutiny through the dismantling of checks and balances which lead the questioning of the constitutional order. Therefore, in avoiding non-government friendly newspapers and avoiding political scrutiny from legislators, Johnson highlights how his government is attempting to become independent of the law and is acting within its own perceived constitutional remit.

 Despite this, This rejection of pluralism in government could be considered limited: Johnson’s government was democratically elected and respects the norms and traditions that exist around democratically elected Government . But a precedent towards populism can be considered with PM Cameron’s brief use of populist rhetoric on immigration. This suggests that by setting the precedent of anti-pluralism early on, Johnson could be considered to be setting his government on the teleological journey towards becoming populist authoritarians. The next section of this paper will critically analyse the governmental strategy against populism. 

5 Mainstream Governmental Responses the growth of the  Eurosceptic discourse 

5.1 Prime Minister David Cameron’s strategy against the growth of anti immigration and anti EU integration discourse 

PM David Cameron’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition (2010-2015), and the 2015 Conservative majority sought to define themselves as the modern liberal alternative to a populist threat – a marginal, xenophobic movement based on a ideology of the ‘deposed’. Cameron wanted to portray his government to the electorate as progressive; conscious of the impact of climate change.  This was demonstrated with flagship policies; the legalising of same sex marriage (21st March 2014), and offering referendums. This  was evident in the Alternative Vote (AV) Referendum on 5th May 2011, which asked the UK electorate if they wish to change their current voting system to AV and the infamous EU referendum on the 23rd  June 2016. The UK government depicts this progressive agenda: “During his time as Prime Minister, his government led the way on the equalities agenda by passing the UK’s same sex marriage act. He also held three national referendums” (Past Prime Ministers, Gov.UK, 2020).

This was further explored by Cameron in an interview with the BBC in 2018 after his resignation as PM in July 2016, and then as an MP in September 2016. In this interview he specified the importance of the 2010-2015 government’s Same Sex Couples Act (2003) legislation and how he had argued robustly for it to be supported by his party; he stated: “legalising gay marriage is one of the things of which I’m proudest”, and referred to it as one of the  “most contentious, hard-fought and divisive issues during (my) time” (Jo Couzens, BBC New Online, 2019).

The argument that Cameron’s government was socially, liberally and actively reformist in its nature can be considered a key component of its political strategy against Euro-sceptic parties, such as UKIP. Ian Berral (The Guardian, 2019) defines this, reporting that Cameron’s agenda was moving the party towards the political centre-ground through a process of modernisation and reform; removing Euro-sceptic MPs from positions of power in the Conservative Party. This attempt to move away from Euro-scepticism was evident during the 2005 Conservative Party leadership election, which Cameron successfully won. He stated that: “[the Conservative Party] should stop banging on about Europe” (David Cameron, 2006).

This outlines a clear difference between PM Johnson’s and PM Cameron’s premierships.  Collier (2016) argued that PM Cameron used populist rhetoric regarding immigration in order to maximise his support from the Euro-sceptic Conservatives in the electorate; he stated: “the growing popularity of UKIP has created a new ideological environment that the Conservative party has been keen to adapt” (Agnès Alexandre-Collier, 2017, 121).

Despite this inclusion of populist Euro-sceptic language regarding immigration, Cameron’s social policies display the socially liberal aims which were discussed earlier. Contrastingly, Johnson’s government, and choice of ideologically Euro-sceptic ministers who supported the exit of the UK from the EU,  allowed for the populist dialogue to be used both in rhetoric and in policy, such as that regarding immigration.  

Cameron’s development of a perceived pluralist progressive narrative was designed to  marginalise the Euro-sceptic movement as xenophobic. This was made clear in his description of Brexiters in 2006, whilst Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet were defining their progressive narrative: “Loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists” (Ros Taylor, The Guardian, 2006).

The interview respondent Claire Fox MEP, (Brexit Party) encapsulated how mainstream political parties during this period sought to demonise Euroscepticism, in the period 2010-1015 by defining their stances towards the social achievements of Cameron’s government as regressive. Fox (2019) outlined that this can be considered the hubris of a liberal establishment used to silence the electorate’s valid criticism of the EU.

Fox MEP (2019) stated: “Populists are de-legitimised by the mainstream political parties as alt-right and xenophobes” (Claire Fox MEP).

This concern can be considered to be self-evident during the EU Referendum campaign, where Cameron grossly misunderstood popular support for Euro-scepticism, despite UKIP garnering 12.6% of the vote in the earlier 2015 General Election. Cameron’s strategy failed to comprehend how Euro-scepticism, and anti-immigration attitudes had become  embedded in the mainstream discourse. Additionally it demonstrated a lack of awareness of how the Brexit campaign had normalised Euro-sceptic beliefs which were synonymous with mainstream political parties’ understanding of ‘populism’. Cameron stated: “Voters preparing to back a Brexit are “quitters”, “little Englanders” and do not love Britain” (Ben Riley Smith, 2016).

Fox, MEP (2019) further argues that Cameron’s government seeking to remain part of the EU undermined its pluralist aims. This meant the UK government was allowing the excessively bureaucratic managerialism and technocracy of the EU to remove individual countries’ political agency (Fox 2019). Greven (2016) depicts this concept of marginalisation of the populist ideas and leadership as xenophobic, stating how it increases support for the former by legitimising the populist narrative of a corrupt elite vs an exploited general public. He states: 

 “A strategy of marginalisation, practiced in many local, regional, state and sometimes national legislatures, might keep the right-wing populists from shaping policy, but does nothing to minimise their electoral appeal” (Thomas Greven  2016,11).

Cameron’s political strategy misunderstood the popular support held by Euro-sceptic parties, and deliberately over-simplified and demonised  their politics. Fox MEP (2019) Supports this misunderstanding of euroscepticism in the use of the word ‘populist’. In the interview I asked whether she considered herself to be a populist; Fox (2019) argued that this term populist perpetrates the argument that populism is meaningless ideology which is based on emotional responses. This can be considered emblematic of PM Cameron strategy in that his Government failed to understand history and tradition to the Eurosceptic discourse in the UK: “the phrase populist and populism has become such a expanding category that is almost meaningless…I have a sense of the specificity” (Claire Fox, MEP, 2019).

Contrastingly, Richard Corbett perpetrated what can be considered the mainstream understanding of populism being a belief which that  its a surface layer ideology which does not have its roots in nuances debate and evidence: “populist parties are parties that that appeal to a people’s initial reactions and emotions without seeking to explain factors behind them” (Richard Corbett, 2019).

This outlines the term populist can be considered highly political and how it is eterpret and can be perceived as term used to oppress certain political views. Camerons attempt to damage populist popular support polarised the argument in favour of Euro-sceptics as it made the mainstream ruling elite synonymous with the EU establishment.

5.2 Boris Johnsons Government’s adoption of the ‘soft populist’ strategy against Eurosceptic political parties 

PM Boris Johnson can be defined as a ‘soft populist’ (Bordignon, 2017). This is a leader who, despite coming from a similar background of wealth and privileged education as Cameron (typical of mainstream politicians), assumed Euro-sceptic beliefs and utilised populist rhetoric against a corrupt elite. This approach can be considered symptomatic of the normalisation of Euro-sceptic beliefs in the political discourses of the EU Referendum campaign, where those who argued for the ‘Leave’ option were divided into two groups. The official campaign group for the UK to leave the EU, Vote Leave, was formed in October 2015.  This included Boris Johnson MP, Michael Gove MP, Dominic Cummings, and the Labour MP, Gisela Stuart. The other group supporting leaving of the EU was called Leave.EU which was established in July 2015. This campaign group was backed by Arron Banks (established UKIP donor) and Andrew Tice (who later stood for the Brexit Party in the 2017 General Election). These members were linked to Nigel Farage through connections with the UKIP and Brexit parties respectively, throughout previous – and indeed in future – elections. The BBC (2016) delineated this configuration of the two campaign groups: “Vote Leave was launched on 9 October 2015, and comprises a cross-party group of MPs…Leave.EU  Founded by UKIP donor Arron Banks, it was backed by leader Nigel Farage, who billed it as an “umbrella group” of anti-EU campaigners” (BBC News, 2016).

Satnam Virdee et al (2017) depicts the separation of the two groups, as the ‘mainstream’ politicians and the ‘populist’ politicians. Despite the EU Referendum allowing Euro-sceptic arguments to become part of the mainstream, as previously argued earlier in this chapter, the mainstream parties still sought to reconfigure  political discourse to further marginalize and fragment ‘populist’ groups. Through use of this strategy against the perceived populists, Johnson’s approach no longer defined ‘populist’ political arguments as racist and xenophobic (this attitude had been synonymous with PM Cameron’s style of governance). Instead, Vote Leave sought to politically eclipse the Brexit Party in the Euro-sceptic discourse. This ability to surpass the Leave.EU  movement was argued by Yates (2017). She defined Johnson as a politician whose connections within the electorate broke down Mudd’s critique of the populist idea of a corrupt out touch of elite. This was central to Johnson’s strategy as it neutralised that central argument of ‘populists’ that the establishment did not have the electorate’s interest at heart, because they were fundamentally  aligned with the EU. Yates notes that Johnson utilises: “authentic un-spun qualities that in the past have been key to his ability to connect with the public” (Candida Yates, 2018, 2).

This strategy was defined by Bordignon (2017) in his interpretation of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, as a ‘soft populist’. During the 2017 French presidential campaign (which Macron went on to win), Macron capitalised on the political climate of anti-elitist narratives. Despite President Macron and PM Johnson being from very different ends of the political spectrum, they both capitalised on anti-establishment attitudes towards political elites by positioning themselves as a fresh new alternative. Therefore, PM Johnson’s strategy against perceived ‘populists’ is in stark contrast to PM Cameron’s because Johnson appears to understand the popularity of the Euro-sceptic discourse and the climate of suspicion and distrust against the ruling elite. This was a crucial change of approach for the leave campaigners during the EU Referendum campaign. 

In the final section of this chapter, this dissertation will consider how Johnson rejected working with the Brexit Party in the 2017 General Election and defined himself as very separate from the Cameron government which had  haemorrhaged their popular support to Euro-sceptic parties in the 2015 General Election.

Boris Johnson’s strategy against other Euro-sceptic parties, which embraced ideas once perceived as populist, can be considered effective. He achieved this by disassociating himself and his government from the legacy of Cameron. Additionally Johnson further side-lined Farage and the Brexit Party  through denial of any electoral pact or post-election government position. 

By the Johnson government’s acceptance of the ‘populist’ narrative on Europe and immigration into their mainstream discourse, Johnson could be considered an ‘end point’ for Euro-scepticism. His government is pursuing a ‘populist’, Euro-sceptic agenda.  In the 2014 Conservative party conference (before Johnson’s rise to prominence as leader of the party), and in the lead up to UKIP winning 2 million votes in the 2015 election, Johnson  suggested  UKIP supporters to be marginal and questionable: “… people thinking of defecting to UKIP are the sort given to  abuse vacuum cleaners” (Boris Johnson, The Guardian Online, 2014).

This depiction of the Eurosceptic movement was emblematic of the political discourse of the time, in which mainstream politicians sought to delegitimize Eurosceptics by generalizing their arguments and undermining their rationale. Fox MEP defined this ignorant approach of the establishment which emphasizes the lack of historical understanding of the Euro-sceptic movement and the complexity of its discourse. Fox MEP stated: “…mainstream political parties hadn’t a clue what’s going on” (Claire Fox, 2020).

Succeeding Theresa May as leader of the Conservative party on 23rd July 2019, Johnson then shifted his narrative during the build up to the 2019 General Election. This paradigm shift in the mainstream discourse is a clear contrast from Johnson’s depiction of Euro-sceptics in 2014 as a xenophobic, marginal group. This was outlined in a BBC interview in which Johnson sought to define the Euro-sceptics as a political pointless because his Government was aiming to the Eurosceptic aim of the UK leaving the EU. PM Johnson stated that voting for the Brexit Party would be regressive in achieving the UK leaving the EU. Johnson stated: “I want to be very, very clear that voting for any other party than this government, this Conservative government… is basically tantamount to putting Jeremy Corbyn in” (BBC News,2019: Election results).

Johnson’s change in tactics acknowledges the failure of PM Cameron’s attempt to quell Euro-scepticism  from becoming increasingly prevalent in the mainstream discourse. Farage also acknowledged this in stepping down Brexit Party candidates  in Conservative held parliamentary seats therefore not splitting the Eurosceptic vote, This enabled Johnson to gain a majority Government and achieve Brexit .David Cuts et al (2019) argued that this hugely aided the Conservatives’ election victory: “Conservatives were successful in achieving these objectives, albeit aided by Nigel Farage’s decision at the start of the campaign to stand down Brexit Party candidates” (David Cutts et al, 2020, 4).

Despite his Farage MEPS political alliance to Johnson and the Conservative Party, the idea of Farage being allowed into government was fiercely rejected . This can further be considered as an aspect of Johnson’s strategy; no longer critiquing Euro-sceptic arguments as xenophobic but instead questioning the integrity of their leaders as trustworthy individuals. A spokesperson for Johnson’s government symbolised this attitude in their depiction of Farage: “not a fit and proper person…should never be allowed anywhere near government” (BBC News, 2019).

David Cuts et al (2019) argued that the shift in strategy by the Conservative Party during the 2019 General Election (to increase Johnson’s electability in poorer working class regions of the UK), was more successful than PM May’s (during the 2017 General Election). Johnson was able to distance himself from PM Cameron’s socially liberal policies. , instead spearheading ‘soft populism’ in British government, and taking a decisive shift towards nationalistic rhetoric in the Brexit negations  (Bordignon, 2017). This lined the British up against the perceived elites at Brussels. 

The ‘soft populist’ strategy is referenced by Cuts et al (2019): “This contended that, in the shadow of the vote for Brexit, Conservatives should downplay David Cameron’s more socially liberal brand of conservatism” (David Cutts, 2020, 4).

Consequently, Farage’s decision to withdraw candidates from conservative held seats coupled with Johnson’s rejection of the mainstream social liberal discourse and his courting of populist arguments as outlined in Chapter 2, this neutralised the Brexit party as a electoral force. Despite the electoral failure of populist pro-Brexit parties, the success of populist Eurosceptic movements can be measured in how their narrative became part of the mainstream. Browning (2019) argued that Euro-sceptic movements within the UK successfully cultivated a narrative which appealed to the mistrust towards political elites of the UK and in the EU. 

5.3 How Prime Minister Boris Johnson became an ‘end point’ for Eurosceptic populism in the United kingdom

The success of Euro-sceptical discourse in becoming normalized within the UK institutions is outlined by The Brexit Party MEP’s voting in favour of PM Johnson’s deal with the European Parliament has it was made into legislation in the European Union. This was stated by the Rupert Lowe Brexit party MEP: “The deal is a miserable document, but with the commitments to non-alignment and no transition extension, it is acceptable” (Rupert Lowe, The Telegraph Online, 2019).

 This political bond between The Conservative Party and the Eurosceptic parties defines how the Euro Sceptic beliefs have become embedded into the legislative and rhetorical discourse  in The UK’S political institutions. Usherwood (2019) depicted this paradigm shift which led to the Eurosceptic ideas becoming mainstream in the political discourse. “Populists both shape and are shaped by their environments, potentially even more than other political parties” (Rupert Lowe, 2019, 6).

This quote specifies that populist  arguments are shaped by what they are opposing in the mainstream. Therefore, when PM Johnson’s Government assumes the Eurosceptics aims this clearly outlines that Euroscepticpopulist were no longer on the fringes of political discourse and were capitulated  into mainstream. Despite this, Fox MEP stated the form of Eurosceptic populism she represents cannot be reduced to issues of the UK Leaving the EU and tougher immigration policy. But, instead large social movements which exist because of the failure of the mainstream political parties: “the Brexit party is not a proper political party; its existence only made sense if you understand the inability of the mainstream political parties”.

This point is crucial as it  reflected what Corbett MP (2019) also asserted  and the begging of this paper that populist parties came into existence due to the failure of mainstream political parties within Government.

This shows that Fox MEP (2019) believed the delineation of The  Brexit Party being a single issue populist party was a highly limited analysis. Fox MEP (2019) critiques Lowe (2019)  belief  that populist are a emotional product of their political surroundings by asserting that the populist  political parties was born into existence through the failure of mainstream political parties and how they were ignorant of the electorate and inequalities that they had created through the policies they pursued. Fox supports her critique by outing who she seeks to represent: “the Brexit party is a vehicle for people who are ignored by the main political parties” (Claire Fox MEP Brexit Party, 2019).

This suggests that Fox’s views is that there is a corrupt bourgeoise elite in society who ignores the wider sections of the electorate when creating legislation. This arguments surprises Mudds (2013) critique of populism dividing society upon emotional lines. This can be seen as a critique is closer to the critique of Karl Marx, in which society is structured in conflict between a managerial technocratic elite which exploits a working class through economy, and also the technocratic elites in the EU suppress individuals’ agency in the UK.  Despite Fox’s MEP (2019) assertion that the section of The Brexit Party she represents is a political movement based on neo-Marxists principles, the electoral results in the 2019 general election put The Brexit Party on 2% (BBC News, 2019). This outlines how the narrative of the Brexit Party on Europe and immigration had become assumed by the Conservative Party lead by Boris. 

Therefore, this substitutes Gambles (2019)  argument that the Conservative Party is  an election winning machine. This electoral ability of Conservative Party  to change its political appearance has its roots in PM Margaret Thatcher’s successful attempt at rebranding The Conservative  party as the party anti collectivism and interventionist; pioneering low taxes and freedom for the free market.

Johnson’s strategy to neutralize The Brexit Party and redefine The Conservative Party as a Eurosceptic Party can be symptomatic of Gambles (2019) critique of the Conservative party . PM Johnsons strategy against other Eurosceptics  can be considered largely successful as his Government represented the political end points of Eurosceptic populism.

6 Conclusion 

The existing political paradigms and subsequent discourses surrounding the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and the UK governments’ immigration policies, can be considered to have fundamentally accepted Eurosceptic populist arguments pertaining to them. Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to use the rhetoric of the populist party UKIP, in order to garner electoral support, he paved the way for the foundation of the growth of populist parties and social movements. This set the precedent for the normalisation of a neo-conservative nationalist response to immigration.

The language used by mainstream politicians in the European referendum campaign of 2016, and the subsequent Brexit, is a seminal moment in UK political history, and is central to this paper. This is because it is a formative point; Eurosceptic arguments became embedded and normalised in the UK mainstream political discourse.

Therefore, the rhetorical foundations laid down by PM Cameron’s government and the seminal changes enacted as a result of the UK voting to leave the EU, limited mainstream political argument and allowed the populist movement’s leaders to become emboldened. PM Johnson’s government policies regarding the UK’s leaving of the EU, and its immigration policy, can be considered a product of this seismic shift in the heart of mainstream governance to allow for a more Eurosceptic neo-conservative  policy, which allowed PM Johnson to set a precedent towards the populist demagogue.

This paper has attempted to critically analyse the difference between PM Cameron and PM Johnsons political response and strategy towards the populist political parties they faced in an electoral context. PM Cameron used Mudd’s (2013) critique of populism; labelling those with populist beliefs as anti-pluralist and xenophobic. This underestimation and lack of understanding of the Eurosceptic populist movement can be considered central to the failure in his attempt to undermine the populist discourse. Contrastingly, PM Johnson saw this growth in the electoral support for Euroscepticism as a political opportunity for the Conservative Party; therefore, shifting his political stance to accept Eurosceptic beliefs on immigration and the EU. This neutered populist parties as a threat and eclipsed them as a electoral force.  The success of PM Johnson in removing the populists as an electoral threat overshadows the success of the Eurosceptic and populist movements. They may have lost electorally, but their ideas and values have become incorporated into mainstream governance. This clearly shows the power and influence that populist movements in the UK have regarding shifting the mainstream political parties. Johnson’s shrewdness in allying himself to populist ideas has also denied populist parties such as UKIP or the Brexit Party an overt political platform in government. Arguably, this will make it harder for them to potentially have a public role in the future.

The analysis in this paper may be tempered in the future by dynamics of political discourse that its narrative did not counter for. Due to the necessarily wide period over which this analysis is based (2010-2019), the evidence and historical events used may lack the depth and detail which a shorter historical period might yield. The intention of this paper therefore, is to summarise and provide an overview.

In conclusion, the Eurosceptic ‘populist zeitgeist’ (Mudd, 2013), had been an unstoppable electoral force up until PM Johnson’s government of 2019. It can be considered to have redefined political paradigms in the UK, creating new traditions and cultures as a result of its normalisation and legitimization.


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