Without meaning to be rude to colleagues, or the No 10 press team, it is probably fair to say that Downing Street lobby briefings are not the best places to go for highbrow political discourse. It’s more question/line to take, followed by new version of the question/same line to take all over again. But at one point in the briefing today we did start to open up a discussion about the nature of populism.
It was prompted by the Philip Hammond interview with the BBC released this morning. (See 9.15am.) In it the former chancellor said he thought the government would have to abandon some of its manifesto spending promises. No 10 has not said yet that it accepts this (they dodged the question today), but the claim is not particularly provocative.
But Hammond went further. He said Boris Johnson would find it hard to implement cuts because he was leading a “populist” government. This is a claim often made by Johnson’s critics, but one very rarely repeated by Conservative politicians because, in the mind of establishment opinion, populism is generally seen as dishonest, disreputable, and menacing
When asked about Hammond’s comment, Allegra Stratton, the PM’s press secretary, said she did not accept his claim that Johnson was not willing to take unpopular decisions. She said:
The prime minister has spoken about the tough choices ahead. There have been difficult choices he has had to make in responding to the pandemic and indeed over the months and years ahead there will be more of them. So, I don’t recognise the picture the former chancellor makes.
Stratton was then pressed on whether Hammond was right to describe the government as “populist”. She replied:
We can have a debate about populist and popular and the technical terms, but certainly this is a prime minister that over the last few months has already started to lay out policy decisions that have been difficult. You can see that in the difficult decision, for instance, on foreign aid, the decision we had to take this year to reduce it from 0.7 [0.7% of national income]. So this is a prime minister that is prepared to take difficult decisions, and is weighing up hard choices at the moment.
This was a surprising answer because, although cutting the foreign aid budget may have been a “difficult” decision for Guardian readers, it is also one of the most popular decisions ever taken by Johnson’s government. Adam Bienkov from Business Insider dug out the polling.
Of course, being popular is not the same as being “populist”. Populism is a concept with various definitions, but the one most widely accepted now is (in the words of Cas Mudde, who is credited with coming up with it) “an ideology that considers society to be separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people”. Johnson is clearly associated with this because of the way he has championed Brexit as an anti-elitist crusade.
Cutting the aid budget was not part of the Brexit offer, but for years it was the signature economic policy of Ukip, who were classic rightwing populists and who in many respects wrote the script for Johnson’s Vote Leave movement.
When it was put to Stratton that cutting the aid budget did not prove Johnson was not a populist, she repeated the point about it being a difficult decision. And she said that in implementing lockdown Johnson had obviously had to take other difficult decisions. “This is why this populist label, I don’t find it very helpful,” she added.