Britain elected its new prime minister this week — well, actually, Britain didn’t pick Boris Johnson to succeed Theresa May after the Conservative head of state resigned. Fewer than 200,000 people picked him — less than one percent of the U.K.’s total electorate, Quartz estimates. Because May resigned before the U.K.’s next general election in 2022, her replacement was chosen by way of an internal party election that was only open to members of the Conservative Party, whose Leader pegs its membership at about 160,000 people.
If you, dear American reader of Out dot com, are having 2016 flashbacks, you’re note alone. There are actually a lot of similarities between the two elections: both Trump and Johnson have championed a white supremacist platform that promises to restore some imagined greatness from their respective nations’ past, neither of them won with a majority of electoral support, they’ve both got stupid haircuts, and so on, and so on. But there are some key differences between the two and what their administrations will mean for their respective countries.
To help us grasp that nuance, Out spoke with Shahmir Sanni: the 25-year-old whistleblower who revealed that the pro-Brexit “Vote Leave” campaign had violated electoral law by overspending with Johnson’s support. (Sanni was later outed — a retaliatory tactic intended to silence him. You can read more about the ordeal here.) Here’s what Sanni told us we need to know about Britain’s new prime minister.
OUT: Do you see Boris Johnson’s victory over Jeremy Hunt as a positive or a negative?
SHAHMIR SANNI: It’s more a matter of understanding how he won. Conservative Party membership is just over 100,000 people. [The U.K. Electoral Commission said that the Conservative Party had about 124,000 members in 2018, though Party Chairman Brandon Lewis recently claimed that Tory membership had swelled to 160,000.] The average age is over 55, and they’re 97% white.
Oh my god.
Yeah, it’s a hot fucking mess. Because our previous prime minister, Theresa May, resigned and because she was a conservative, our next prime minister won’t be chosen by popular vote. It’s an internal primary campaign, which means that the candidate that those Conservative Party members picked [Boris Johnson] isn’t necessarily the candidate the public wants. The only way for the Conservative Party to retain control is through an internal election. That’s why the other side, the Labour Party, is calling for a general election — because the British public haven’t voted for this prime minister.
Did Conservative Party members prefer Johnson because he supported Brexit and Hunt did not?
It’s not just about whether he’s a Brexiteer or not. Yes, he is a Brexiteer and I think that was a factor, but Boris Johnson is also just the kind of man that the Conservative establishment imagines itself to be. People forget that Britain is still very much a conservative society, and Johnson’s personality is specifically very English. He’s the perfect example of someone Britain has always valued: a rich Etonian who everyone loves because he’s so smart and so clever. It’s very imperial in its essence, much like the Brexit campaign, which reignited interest in these strong, imperial values. Boris Johnson spoke to those values — essentially, “Make Britain Great Again.”
It’s funny you say “Make Britain Great Again.” Johnson’s talking points upon victory reminded me of Trump, his promises to “deliver Brexit” and “unite the country.” It was all very MAGA. Do you think Trump and Johnson are generally analogous?
They’re not just analogous — they’re in direct contact with one another. British and American politics are very closely aligned. The same network of evangelical Christian lobbyists and rightwing libertarian think tanks you have over there have direct ties to similar organizations right here in London, like the Adam Smith Institute. Steve Bannon [the former Breitbart News executive who served as the White House’s Chief Strategist and Special Counselor to the President during Donald Trump’s first seven months in office] has already admitted to advising Johnson on his last ministerial speech [as Foreign Secretary]. Their shared ideologies is not just a coincidence — it’s an effort by rightwing institutions within America and Britain to realign their elitist policies as populist interests.
So, a coordinated, top-down effort that masquerades itself as grassroots?
We call it elitist anti-elitism — like someone who says “Look at me! I’m one of the people!” but owns a multi-million dollar home. Boris Johnson has always done that very well. He’s the perfect emblem of what British society has always wanted to be: a pompous, Etonian brat. This isn’t a criticism of British people so much as it is a criticism of the institutionally racist system that puts people like Johnson in power, people who see imperialism and Britain’s colonial past as something to be proud of. If Trump is a reaction to Obama, Johnson is a reaction to the growing realization among the British public that colonizing half the world wasn’t a good thing. If there was greatness back then, that greatness came from pillaging, murdering, and colonizing other people.
Do you think that Britain would be better under [Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn]?
To be honest, this isn’t about ideology. Some of Corbyn’s policies are great, and some of the policies that the Labour Party intends to push forward if they ever do come into power are actually helpful to the British public. But the greater problem is institutional. Our institutions are so archaic and weak that we can’t even hold Boris Johnson to account for knowingly covering up the biggest electoral scandal in British history. We need a system that can do that because that’s the only way to fight Johnson — by focusing on how he knowingly violated electoral law during the Brexit campaign. Fighting him on the moral battlefield isn’t going to work because white people don’t care about that shit.