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How Do You Confront Prime Minister Boris Johnson?

July 30, 2019

Labor MP Chris Williamson talks about how to combat the austerity and right-wing policies of Johnson, and says people should stop worrying about Brexit

Labor MP Chris Williamson talks about how to combat the austerity and right-wing policies of Johnson, and says people should stop worrying about Brexit


How Do You Confront Prime Minister Boris Johnson?

Story Transcript

MP DAME CHERYL GILLAN Boris Johnson is elected as the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party. [applause]

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON Thank you so much. I know that there will be people around the place who will question the wisdom of your decision. [crowd laughs]

MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.

Yes, the comical Boris Johnson is now the new Prime Minister of Great Britain. He’s moved into 10 Downing Street, met with the queen, and there are many issues for us to cover from this end from his erratic undisciplined behavior and what that means, to how he was elected by a minuscule minority of voters in Great Britain, to his do or die pronouncement on leaving Brexit was just updated today. The new austerity plan that lies ahead for Britain is perhaps under him why there may not be another election until 2022 and what lies ahead for the Trumpian-Johnsonian axis.

And we are joined by Chris Williamson, who is a Labour Member of Parliament representing the Derby North District. And Chris, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON Thanks for inviting me on.

MARC STEINER So there we have it. You have a new prime minister and, you know, people like to compare him to Donald Trump all the time, compare the two of them. I want to play this short clip of Donald Trump speaking about the new prime minister, but I want to dive into it a little deeper than this.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP [A] really good man is going to be the Prime Minister of the UK now, Boris Johnson. [applause] Good man. He’s tough and he’s smart. They’re saying Britain Trump. They call him Britain Trump. And so people are saying that’s a good thing, that they like me over there. That’s what they wanted. That’s what they need. [crowd cheers] It’s what they need. He’ll get it done. Boris is good. He’s gonna do a good job.

MARC STEINER They don’t like you over there, Donald. But anyway, that’s not what we’re talking about today. [laughs] So Chris—

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON Lack of self of awareness.

MARC STEINER [laughs] So the reality here is that there’s a lot of people making comparisons of the hair. I mean, I think Donald’s hair is probably not real. His hair is real even if he rumbles it before he goes on camera, as they say. But let’s talk about this. I mean, this kind of populist takeover in some senses of the Conservative Party is similar to what’s happened to the Republican Party here. How do you see the differences and the similarities between these two men and what they represent politically?

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON Well, listen. Boris Johnson is a very erudite individual. I mean, he is somebody who is, you know, incredibly well-educated and he feigns this sort of clown persona, but that isn’t really the real Boris Johnson. I mean, the truth is, you know, he’s a hard-right neoliberal. And what I think the similarities are, I mean, ideologically he and Donald Trump do share a same sort of political-ideological outlook in that sense. And I think what he’s trying to sort of tap into is a kind of populist right-wing agenda in that sense. But you know, my opinion the way to tackle right-wing populism is with the progressive left-wing populism. There’s nothing wrong with populism at the end of the day. I mean, it’s you’re trying to be popular. All politicians want to do that I think.

And actually, if you look at the agenda that Jeremy Corbyn has spearheaded and it won him two landslide election victories inside the Labour Party. And despite the worst possible run into a general election with the vast majority frankly of the Parliamentary Labour Party in open revolt against the leadership and indeed the members, we secured the biggest increase in vote shares since 1945. That’s with, you know, rebellious Labour Parliamentarians and indeed a very hostile media who are absolutely determined to do everything they can to, you know, prevent a sort of popular left-wing Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn coming to power. So I don’t share the view that populism is a bad thing per se. I think, you know, what we need to do the way we in the Labour movement need to respond I think to Boris Johnson is to promote our very hopeful, optimistic and progressive alternative.

It is an agenda which is popular. It’s popular with the overwhelming majority of the public. And in my opinion, there’s never been an easier time in many ways to campaign for the Labour Party than right now because if you look at the main platforms upon which we are now standing, there is this overwhelming support. What I would like us to do is go even further. In fact, if you look at opinion polls in Britain, there is an appetite for that. I mean, there’s an appetite for example according to opinion polls, to bring all of the financial institutions into public ownership. And we are only talking about introducing, you know, one publicly-owned bank. We’re talking about setting up a national investment bank to, you know, start directing finance into the economy and creating jobs and making sure we have the infrastructure that’s fit for purpose and a public services the public in this country deserve. We are the fifth biggest economy in the world, and yet we’ve got 14 million people living in poverty.

And I know America, you know, the States are the biggest economy in the world and you have a similar situation where a large proportion of your population is also living in extreme poverty, and that can’t be right. And this is all about political will in the end on both sides of the Atlantic. And this is why I’m hopeful that the American people will and the Democrats first choose Bernie Sanders as their candidate for the presidential election. And that would be a wonderful special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom if we had Bernie in the White House and Jeremy Corbyn in 10 Downing Street.

MARC STEINER But at the moment, we have Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street and Donald Trump at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And so, and to push that a tad further, there’s another clip here that I think came from today. And this is Boris Johnson talking about his latest Brexit moves. And let’s take a quick look at this and talk a bit about how that relates to what we just said and more.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON My friends, I do not want a no-deal Brexit. That is not where we’re aiming, but we have to face the fact that at the moment we’re being told as we’ve been told, for the last three years that “rien ne va plus” — the deal is fixed —  and can’t be changed. We can’t do it as long as that anti-democratic backstop, that backstop that seeks to divide our country, and divide the UK, remains in place. We need to get it out and then we can make progress.

MARC STEINER So let’s talk a bit about where he may be taking this. I mean, there is this October 31st deadline. It’s clear that he’s going to push this and there’s the question we can talk a bit about on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and how all this feeds into that. So talk a bit about that. I mean, this to me will be the—This is part of the heart of the battle that you face in Britain. Let me stop there before I have another question.

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON Yeah. I mean, well look, Boris Johnson’s flip flopped on this. I think he wrote two letters some time ago didn’t he?

MARC STEINER He did.

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON One sort of supporting Remain, and another one supporting Brexit. My own view is, I mean, I’m someone who campaigned very enthusiastically for a remain and reform agenda, but we lost the referendum. And I don’t share the view that some people in the Labour Party and the wider Labour movement do that, you know, we should seek a second referendum to—

MARC STEINER You don’t agree with the second referendum. Why?

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON I don’t know. Well, we had the referendum. We’ve had the referendum. I think if we did put it back to the public, I don’t think we’d have a different outcome in any event. My concern is that it’s an abuse of democracy really. I mean, you know, I was a Member of Parliament in Derby North from 2010 to 2015. And then in the general election in that year, I lost my seat by 41 votes. It’s my home city. It really hurt. You know, losing the seat is a political disappointment, but losing in your home city is kind of the people I’ve grown up with who lost confidence in the Labour Party, lost confidence in me, and voted for someone else to represent the city. I managed to come back in 2017, but that’s the nature of democracy. I lost by 41 votes and I had to accept— as bitter a pill as it was to swallow— I had to accept the outcome of that. And I think now we have to accept the outcome of the referendum.

MARC STEINER But let’s take a—Let me push that a bit further. I mean, when you look at Boris Johnson and what he’s going to push with Brexit, and Brexit may indeed happen under Boris Johnson in a very kind of critical break. And you know, when you look at how Boris Johnson and others campaigned for Brexit with that big red bus saying Britain was spending 350 [pounds] of its money for the European Union, which was a lie and much of the campaign by the Brexiters was a lie. And there is an issue about the European Union’s bureaucracy which could have been dealt with and is not being dealt with, but that’s another question. So I mean, but it’s so—But if you don’t have another vote, and he has his way, Brexit will become a reality. Then, what?

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON Well, I mean, I—Look, Brexit will have to become a reality in my opinion. We’ve had a referendum and I think Brexit does now need to become a reality. But there’s a lot of nonsense spoken about this. I mean, yes of course we know that the Brexit campaigners were disingenuous to say the least and actually some would argue were downright lies. But you know, the Remain campaign weren’t much better it’s got to be said. But in my opinion anyway the whole issue about the European Union is an irrelevance. The issue isn’t whether we’re inside or outside the European Union. It’s not whether we leave with or without a deal. The question is, what is our response to the challenges facing the United Kingdom? What’s the response of the government, for example, if we left without a deal say at the moment? Look, we’ve been inside the European Union— or it used to be the European Economic Community— since 1973, January 1973, 46 years.

MARC STEINER Right.

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON And in that period of time we’ve ended up now, according to the UN special Rapporteur who came to Britain and looked at the situation in relation to poverty, we have 14 million people in the fifth biggest economy in the world— 14 million people— living in poverty. We’ve got 1.5 million now who are destitute in this fifth biggest economy. We’ve got public services in meltdown in our country. We’ve got precarious employment now as endemic throughout the land, low-paid insecure employment, young people leaving school without any kind of real hope of a decent career. We’re being told that we can’t afford a decent pension. Our people have got to work until they drop — got to keep increasing the pension age. All this is all nonsense. It’s an illusion.

What is required is in my opinion a progressive socialist government that comes to power with a political commitment to actually invest in our economy. And the way to deal with any economic shock of leaving the European Union—And economic forecasters, if you can believe economic forecasters, all say in whatever scenario we leave the European Union or whether we remained in the European Union, even if we left without a deal, the economy would continue to grow albeit at a slower pace they say. However, the response therefore needs to be a big fiscal stimulus to address any economic shock and then a non-ambiguous commitment to redistribution of income and wealth. If you do that, then you can address any of the concerns, any of the problems associated with leaving the European Union.

The key thing is political will and having a political agenda that actually addresses the problems facing the UK. We’ve got our own central bank. We have our own sovereign currency. We have huge flexibility. Therefore, we can never max out the credit card. And the issue is making sure that we have an economic prospectus that invests in the economy and pays for it and buys the spare capacity, which there is plenty of inside the United Kingdom— unemployed workers, underemployed workers, lots of things in terms of the infrastructure, in terms of public services, which as I’ve already said are in meltdown. So there’s plenty of things that need to be done. The only, sort of, drag on that is the capacity, you know, the ability if you like of the economy to kind of respond to the ability of a government with a sovereign currency to invest in the economy—

MARC STEINER Chris, let me push it a bit further. I mean, I want to play this clip of Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street talking about his economic ideas as they are, and then come back to kind of pick up on what you just said after looking at this for kind of a final take on this.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters they are going to get it wrong again. And we’re going to fulfill the repeated promises of Parliament to the people and come out of the EU on October the 31st. No ifs or buts. And we will do a new deal, a better deal that will maximize the opportunities of Brexit, while allowing us to develop a new and exciting partnership with the rest of Europe based on free trade and mutual support. I have every confidence that in 99 days’ time we will have cracked it.

MARC STEINER So while there were no specifics there obviously, leaving Brexit under the Tory Party, under his leadership for three more years will not come anywhere close to what you’re talking about. As a matter of fact, it will end up probably having a huge amount of austerity that will further pinch the British people. And then, there could be even greater political turmoil if Scotland goes ahead as some people are threatening in the SNP to push ahead to the literal dismembering of Britain. Whether that would happen or not is another question. But I mean, so we have three years of this. So all you’re talking about is extremely important, but Boris Johnson is at the head of his movement to do just the opposite.

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON Oh, of course. And you know, irrespective of whether we leave with a deal, whether we remain inside the European Union or not, we’re going to have austerity under the Tories. As somebody said, We’ve had ten years of austerity under the Tories as it is. Well, actually we’ve had, you know, we’ve had neoliberalism under New Labour as well as under the Conservatives for, you know, getting on—Well, it actually is 40 years since Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979. We need a new prospectus now. And, you know, if we can leave the European Union and I think that’s the important thing— And frankly, leaving the European Union would give a progressive Labour government a lot more flexibility. It wouldn’t be subjected to the, you know, vagaries of the state aid rules for example.

And let’s remember, the European Union, it’s a capitalist club. It’s a neoliberal club. I mean, the social Europe that, you know, a lot of people speak about. I mean there’s glimpses of it. But, you know, it’s more geared towards providing profitability for the corporate sector. You know, we’ve seen huge privatizations across the piece. And you know, the way I look at the economy and setting the budget as it where, we should be setting the budget to manage the economy, to make sure that the economy is a good economy and we create a good society and we stop this obsession with deficits and so on. And you know, at the moment we’ve got corporate welfare essentially, welfare for the super-rich, welfare for the billionaires and the millionaires, which is being paid for by the rest of us, by the 99%. And I just think people are desperate for a different approach.

I mean, the reason we lost this referendum, you know, it wasn’t anything frankly to do with what was said or not said in the campaign. I mean, and I campaigned every day for Remain— vote for Remain and reform. Although, I’m not sure how practical getting reform through the European Union — how practical that actually is because you need consensus amongst the 27-member, 28-member states and that’s quite tricky I think to achieve. But you know, I think we lost this referendum 20-30 years ago. I mean, the fact that New Labour under Tony Blair didn’t have an industrial strategy to speak of. And you know, many working-class communities, the coalfield communities, the steel towns, the textile towns, and towns that relied on manufacturing and so on which have seen those jobs offshored often to low-wage economies whilst also being inside the European Union has left those communities to all intents and purposes destitute actually.

And you know, they saw elites coming on the TV saying how important it was to vote Remain because you know economically, you’ll be worse off. And a lot of people said, how much worse off could we be? How much worse could it get? You know my kids, if they have the temerity of going to university to get a higher education, they’re coming out with 40, 50, 60 thousand pounds worth of debt or more. We’ve got no decent long-term secure jobs in the local community. People can’t afford to buy a house. They can’t rent because there’s very few rented accommodation in the public housing available anymore. The private rental sector is incredibly expensive. You know, our pensions are inadequate. Benefits, social security benefits are being slashed over and over and over again. And people are saying we’ve had enough of this. And no matter I think frankly what we said, you know in the campaign, people in many ways were determined to give the establishment a kick on the backside.

And you know, I think going back frankly to the country with another referendum— one, I think we’d get the same result if not a bigger “no” vote and a bigger vote to leave the European Union than we saw last time. But the other thing of course it would do, it would embolden the far-right populists. And who knows where that could spiral out of control to. I mean, that’s my real fear and it would actually breed an even greater degree of cynicism in the political process. That’s why, look, as I said, I campaigned for remain, but I think we have to now just on democratic principles accept the outcome and focus on our vision for life beyond the European Union. This is irrelevant whether we’re inside or outside the European Union. The Boris Johnson government is going to be tough for the vast majority of people and particularly for the poorest people.

MARC STEINER So Chris Williamson, this has been fascinating. And I look forward to many more conversations. We’re going to have a lot of room to talk over the next three years—

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON I’m sure we will.

MARC STEINER About where we’re going. And Chris, thanks so much for being with us today and I look forward to more. And by the way as we leave, what is that poster behind you?

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON Ah. This is about Lula da Silva.

MARC STEINER Okay. Got you. Okay, just checking.

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON Yeah. Yes, indeed. It is shocking, terrible what’s happened there. I mean a complete, again, abusive process. Frankly had Lula da Silva been released from jail, he would have won the presidential election. We wouldn’t have this fascist Bolsonaro now—

MARC STEINER I think that’s very true. So we can pick that conversation up next time. Chris Williamson, thank you so much.

MP CHRIS WILLIAMSON No worries. Cheers.

MARC STEINER It’s been a pleasure. Take care. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us today. Let us know what you think. Take care.