On Friday 9th June the populist Boris Johnson resigned as MP. The landslide General Election of 2019 was now just a distant bad memory. He resigned because he thought an upcoming report on Partygate from the Privileges Committee might force him to resign anyway. But how does this have anything to do with Russia?
The answer lies in the ‘strong’ style of government that European right-wing populists admire, which is personified by the strongman Vladimir Putin, who rules Russia as a dictator. As so-called President he has immense formal and informal powers that he has used to mold a rubber-stamp Federal Assembly and a pliant judiciary. He also controls traditional mass media like television and radio which he uses to disseminate a nationalist, reactionary agenda. Though I doubt European populists like Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban and Andrzej Duda would admit they want such a style of government in their home countries, I cannot help but feel they would not be averse to it, considering right wing populists’ frustration with the seemingly inevitable advance of progressivism. Their voters certainly have a tendency (at least before the Ukraine invasion) to admire or tolerate Putin : a 2021 PewResearch poll which asked French people whether they had ‘confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin to do the right thing regarding world affairs’ showed 39% of National Rally supporters answered ‘Yes’ compared to just 21% of non-supporters.
Of course the irony is that Putin is not a populist at all. He and his lieutenants form a kleptocratic elite that rig elections and rule Russia with virtually no say from ‘the people.’ According to a 2021 study ‘Mapping Populism and Leader Rhetoric across North America and Europe’ he also scores extremely lowly on their 0-2 scale of populism at a mere 0.05. Yet bafflingly many of those calling for rule by ‘the people’ idolize him.
The kind of government that I support right now when the biggest challenge is Russia is a centre-right, stable, liberal-democratic one. That is why, although Boris did support Ukraine and was more of a lightweight populist, his political eclipse is a good thing as he was never very convincing as a champion of liberal democracy, not by temperament and not by his supporters, and any return to the premiership would only have benefited Russia.