“There is a channel of communication between them,” says one senior source. “It’s become trickier since Boris became Prime Minister. It’s there. But put it this way: it’s delicate.”
I’ll say. If there is one name guaranteed to make Boris Johnson edgy, and often furious, it is Steve Bannon’s.
Actually, after Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling that the PM’s prorogation of Parliament was “unlawful, void and of no effect”, I’m guessing that it’s also a pretty bad idea to mention the court’s president, Baroness Hale, around him. But the matter of his relationship with President’s Trump’s former chief strategist is almost uniquely sensitive, and Johnson hates being asked about it by journalists.
As I wrote in April, I have myself sent him ballistic reporting on his contacts with the 65-year-old Bannon: notorious for his lank hair; habit of wearing two shirts at once; and confusing oscillation between highly-influential global guru of the right, and self-evident huckster.
Still, I think our embattled PM is just going to have to get used to answering questions about his friend Steve. Because there really is no way to understand how radically he is trying to remould the Conservative Party, and the very specific way in which he is framing contemporary political debate, without reference to the self-appointed father figure of the worldwide right-wing nationalist movement.
In the recent feature-length documentary about Bannon directed by Alison Klayman, The Brink, he boasts of his discussions with Johnson about his first speech after he resigned as Foreign Secretary in July 2018. “I’ve been talking to him all weekend about [it],” Bannon says. “We went back and forth over the text.”
Johnson, naturally, denied that such exchanges had taken place (“codswallop”). Responding to this denial in a subsequent BBC interview, Bannon smiled like the Cheshire Cat and said: “We’ll go with whatever the Prime Minister says.”
It is certain, at any rate, that there was contact between the two men in July 2018, not long before Johnson’s spectacularly controversial column in the Daily Telegraph, in which he wrote that a Muslim woman wearing the niqab resembled “a bank robber” and that it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”.
Bannon had not provided the precise script. But he had undoubtedly urged Johnson, who was floundering at the time, to go out and make some noise, to get the plaster falling off the ceiling: a crucial moment of self-definition in which Johnson completed his transition from popularity (Wodehouse-quoting, loveable cyclist) to populism (divisive champion of Brexit, foe of elites and dog-whistling nativist).
Yet what matters more than the intermittent and mostly clandestine exchanges between the two men is the strategy that it represents. It is a strategy – unacknowledged (at least by Johnson) but transformative in its scope and scale – that can only be described as the ‘Bannonisation’ of the Conservative Party.
For Rory Stewart, the former leadership candidate (now stripped of the whip), and other Tories of his stripe, this is an intolerable prospect. As Stewart told me: “I am a Tory because I believe in old-fashioned traditions: some grand – respect for Parliament and the Queen and the Rule of Law; some just about a modest, understated – and ideally elegant – approach to politics. Some possibly about fair play. But perhaps better, I know what I’m against – comic opera outrage, shrillness, cheap laughs and impugning the worst motives to your opponents. I was proud to be a Tory and British because I thought this was a party and a country which would never quite accept Trump.”
By which Stewart means everything that Trump stands for, and the methods that Bannon taught him about spreading vitriol, wilfully deploying divisive rhetoric. This, in turn, poses the question: will the Conservatives – who, after all, chose Johnson rather than Stewart as their leader – embrace all this?
Flick through the conference guide to the Tories’ annual conference in Manchester – starting this Sunday, but disrupted by Parliament’s rejection on Thursday of a short recess – and you find the usual timetable of worthy fringe meetings on social issues, wealth creation, poverty, climate change, austerity, technology, housing and so on.
But all these traditional policy discussions will be eclipsed by Johnson’s very simple, populist message. He will choreograph his first conference as Tory leader as a rally dedicated to indignant populism: launching his general election campaign by posturing as the tribune of ‘the People’ versus a Parliament that, he will say, has sabotaged the will of the electorate as expressed in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Like Trump, he will pledge un-costed spending sprees, grand infrastructure, and simple solutions to complex problems. In the true spirit of economic Bannonism, he and his Chancellor Sajid Javid, will launch a programme rooted in eventual tax cuts for the upper middle-classes and tasty appetisers for middle earners.
He will demonise anyone who stands in the way of what he perceives to be the popular will – the media, the judiciary, the civil service… anyone, really, to whom he can attribute blame.
Just as Trump pledged to “drain the swamp”, Johnson will promise to purge the system of its wreckers and elitists. Just as, earlier this month, he purged the party of 21 MPs (including Stewart, Sir Nicholas Soames and Ken Clarke) who defied him by voting for the Commons to seize control of the order paper.
Though the PM will doubtless claim, ritualistically, to be a One Nation mainstream Conservative, and a fiscally responsible custodian of taxpayer’s money, he will do so with his fingers crossed behind his back. The party of Peel, Churchill, and Thatcher is fading. It is fast becoming the party of Boris – and of Steve.
Be like Bannon
Bannon’s instinct under fire is always to do more of the same – even in geopolitical matters. In a Washington Post article in May, for example, as the US and China squared up to wage a trade war, he wrote that “the president’s best political option is not to surrender, but rather to double down on the tariffs.”
According to Michael Wolff’s best-selling book, Fire And Fury, Bannon’s advice after the racist violence at Charlottesville in August 2017 was that the President should not single out the far right. “It will be clear his heart’s not in it,” he said.
Notoriously, the President stuck to this line, insisting, in the face of global outrage, that there was “violence on many sides” and “very fine people on both sides”: an astonishing gift to the far right, whose rioting had led to many injuries and a fatality.
Witness, similarly, the Prime Minister’s astonishingly defiant performance in the House of Commons on Wednesday, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. Not a shred of humility, though his actions had just been called “unlawful” by the highest court in the land: according to our PM and amateur jurist, “the court was wrong”. (Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons who has also held talks with Bannon, declared the verdict nothing less than a “constitutional coup”.)
Invited by Labour MP, Paula Sherriff, to stop using inflammatory language – in particular, “surrender act” (a reference to the legislation blocking a no deal Brexit on October 31), “betrayal” and so on – on the grounds that such rhetoric was endangering MPs’ lives, Johnson replied that had never heard such “humbug” in his life. At that moment, the PM sounded as dismissive as Trump condemning any criticism as “fake news” or a “witch hunt”.
That Sherriff had invoked the murder of Jo Cox by a far-right extremist in the week before the 2016 referendum seemed not to move Johnson in the slightest. Indeed, he provoked gasps in the House with his astonishing claim that “the best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox and to bring this country together is, I think, to get Brexit done.”
The insult was then compounded by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser. Confronted in Portcullis House at Westminster by the Labour MP Karl Turner over the death threats he had himself received, Cummings, leaning against a pillar, replied laconically: “Get Brexit done.”
Meanwhile, in Friday’s Times newspaper, an unnamed Cabinet Minister warned of a violent uprising if the decision to leave the EU were overturned in a fresh referendum. In other words: if you want to avoid physical danger, do as we say on Brexit.
This is pure Bannonism: to unsettle your opponents by deliberately crossing the line, defying normal courtesies, disrupting debate by scorning its conventions.
‘We call ourselves The Fight Club’
In January 2017, the Washington Post reported Bannon’s description of the alt right news platform Breitbart News (of which he was the former executive chair): “We call ourselves ‘the Fight Club.’ You don’t come to us for warm and fuzzy. We think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly anti-the permanent political class… We hire people who are freaks. They don’t have social lives.”
He might have been describing the way in which Johnson has tried to run Number 10 under the much-criticised Cummings. His weekly Friday meetings for government special advisers have become a bully pulpit for exactly this sort of rhetoric – an opportunity for Johnson’s chief adviser to insist upon success “by any means necessary”, and to encourage aides to name and shame anyone in the system who is remotely hostile to exit from the EU on October 31.
Cummings refers to the establishment by postcode shorthand as SW1 – the area covering Westminster – and scorns its blinkered failure to understand the popular will as clearly as he and Johnson believe that they do. It is an article of faith in this context that the government represents the people in their great struggle with what Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, last week called the “dead Parliament”.
Like Bannon, Cummings loves to parade his erudition. Both men are fans of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Bannon also often cites Jean Raspail’s ultra-xenophobic 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, and an obscure book about alleged historical cycles, The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe, which is, to use the technical term, batshit crazy. At least Cummings mostly sticks to Thucydides and military memoirs.
In March, Bannon told members of Marine Le Pen’s National Front: “Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists, wear it as a badge of honour.”
While Johnson has never gone quite that far, he does little to dispel the notion that he regards all imputations of xenophobia, chauvinism or racism as a sign of desperation among his opponents.
Pressed during the Tory leadership contest to apologise for his “letter boxes” article, he merely expressed regret at any offence he might have caused – and made clear that the fault lay elsewhere: “People have taken my words… and escalated them.”
No less telling was Johnson’s refusal in July to condemn as “racist” Trump’s tweets urging four congresswomen of colour to go back to the “broken and crime infested places from which they came” (as it happened, all but one had been born in the US).
Again, the Bannonite dog-whistle had been blown. Johnson distanced himself from Trump’s shocking remarks – but not so much that he damaged his credibility as the nativist right’s man on the inside.
In flagrant violation of the principle that all political victories are constructed from broad-church coalitions, Bannon has long argued that the essence of Trump’s success in 2016 – and prospects of winning a second term in 2020 – is the loyalty of the 35 per cent he calls the “deplorables” (embracing Hillary Clinton’s famously dismissive term for her opponent’s core vote).
While Johnson would never describe the 17.4 million voters who backed Brexit three years ago in such language, his decision to surround himself in government with veterans of the successful Vote Leave campaign tells you a lot about his electoral plans. To a surprising extent, there is still a lazy expectation among many conservatives that the Brexit era of 2013 to 2019 – assuming the UK leaves this year – will prove to be a nasty hiatus, a diversion from the broadly One Nation inclusive trajectory, and that normal service will soon be resumed. Not so; not so at all.
The uneven distribution of the 17.4 million across 650 constituencies means, of course, that this psephological strategy is by no means sound. But it is instructive enough about the way in which he intends to campaign.
For all the boilerplate language about reuniting the country, this will be a divisive election, by design. In every sense, Johnson will seek to finish the job he started three years ago.
Everything is connected
In his book, Pax Technica, the Oxford academic Philip N Howard argues that “the state, the political party, the civic group, the citizen: these are all old categories from a pre-digital world”.
We need to understand that modern politics has been completely reconfigured in the digital world. Put simply, politics has moved house – it is no longer primarily a series of interactions between institutions but exists “as a system of relationships between and among people and devices”.
In an interview with me, Howard says that Bannon has proved a “masterful” protagonist in this new world: “He has generated immense amounts of content for an extremist conservative community and provided that community with the tools to share among themselves. His content isn’t designed for moderates and middle of the road voters – it was first and foremost designed for ultra conservatives to spread amongst themselves and then secondarily, to be spread from ultra conservative to regular conservative voters.”
Has this migrated to Conservative politics? “We are definitely living through an era in which political communication is not about big organisations like parties, unions or social movements telling their membership how to mobilise,” Howard said. “Social media has allowed people to remake their parties, unions, and social movements.”
Examine the modern politics of the right through this prism and you suddenly see a shifting, spider’s web defined by connections that are often scarcely visible – with Bannon’s influence visible throughout.
This web has not yet entirely conquered the Conservative party: there is still significant resistance to its hegemony. But the network explains Johnson’s behaviour much more clearly than the old methods of Tory conduct and organisation.
By definition, network politics has fewer rules than the old institutional variety. But here are some of its more reliable features:
The connections that matter in modern politics are not necessarily those that prevail within parties. Indeed, the opposite may often be the case.
Decentralisation is the absolute key. Indeed, there is no centre and fringe as traditionally understood – only linkages, some longer-lasting and more significant than others.
As our visualisation shows, apparent foes may be more closely connected than first meets the eye. At present, Nigel Farage is managing the Brexit Party as a permanent provocation to the Conservatives, goading Johnson publicly over his stalled diplomacy on the continent in search of a new EU deal. Meanwhile, Number 10 responded to Farage’s offer of an electoral pact by declaring that he was not a “fit and proper person”. Game over?
In the old world, yes. But things are not always what they seem. According to one Brexit Party MEP: “Don’t be fooled. The talks are carrying on. You may not see a full-blown formal pact. But at local level, which is what counts, everything is still possible.”
Both men are linked to Bannon – especially Farage, who texts or speaks to the US strategist almost daily, and shares a close associate with him in Raheem Kassam, a former Ukip leadership candidate and ex-editor-in-chief of Breitbart News London. Bannon is also an admirer of Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the jailbird founder of the English Defence League and anti-Islam activist, whom he described as “the backbone of this country” in a rant in July 2018 against a “fucking liberal elite” reporter.
Robinson served as an adviser on grooming gangs and prisons to former Ukip leader Gerard Batten, and stood as one of the party’s candidates in the European elections – losing his deposit in North West England. “This was a mistake,” says one observer with a deep understanding of right-wing connections. “Each to his own: Boris in Number 10, Nigel prodding him as the Brexit conscience, Tommy Robinson on the streets and social media. He had no business running to be a parliamentarian.”
It is easy to get lost in the weeds – which is, of course, the point. Network politics is intended to be fugitive, flickering in and out of visibility, defying the normal processes of scrutiny and accountability.
Interestingly, when Bannon has tried to formalise his activities – as he did when he set up ‘The Movement’ for nationalist parties, based in Brussels – the results have been pitiful. He is much more successful when itinerant, nimble, flying by private jet from city to city.
Not surprisingly, academic analysis of this new landscape is in its infancy. Matthew Williams, Director of the HateLab initiative at Cardiff University where he is also professor of criminology, told me that he is confident that a “networked Right does exist”.
Williams and his team are engaged in a data collection process at present that will chart the analytical value of social media posts by the Leave campaigns, Farage, Robinson and others as a guide to explaining the variance in street hate crimes. This will shed important light on the human cost of this new way of conducting politics.
For now, recognise only this: everything is connected.
The scope of the sayable
Network politics has changed the rules governing the distribution of political message, and dramatically blurred the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable. Notionally mainstream politicians may piggy-back on a far right position – partially distancing themselves from more barbarous language, while leaving ample space for voters to believe that they are privately sympathetic to the extremist view in question.
Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech in April 1968 inadvertently established a very clear consensus on what could or could not be said in mainstream UK politics about race and immigration – a consensus that held for almost 50 years.
The rise of Ukip, however, and the cult of Nigel Farage marked the fraying of that consensus. The rules shattered completely during the referendum campaign – Farage’s vile ‘Breaking Point’ poster marking a clear shift in the realm of the possible.
Crucially, this shift was not confined to the ranks of Ukip. After the referendum, it became commonplace to hear Tory ministers say that companies should keep lists of foreign workers, that doctors born overseas were denying British teenagers the chance to study medicine, even that foreign students ought not to aspire to settle in the UK.
The old partitions that separated respectable institutions – including mainstream political parties – from fringe opinion are being torn down. Network politics means that all right-wing messaging exists on a continuum. One part of the network can say what another cannot. Which is not to say that the degree of co-ordination is high or even especially significant. What matters is that each part of the network performs its role – governing, campaigning or mobilising street support.
This is not the story of a traditional, meticulously-orchestrated conspiracy. It is perhaps best described as a collaboration involving a shifting cast of characters who are often, so to speak, “unwitting collaborators”. As Marx is said to have remarked: not all conspiracies are conscious.
Mood, not policy
The purpose of modern populism is not to deliver policies but to manipulate mood in the interests of maintaining power. It was more important to Trump to generate fear of the so-called “caravan” of refugees than it is for him to realise his dream of a wall.
Indeed, the wall serves a populist purpose by not being built: it symbolises the obstructive instincts of the elite and supplies the President with an off-the-shelf betrayal narrative.
Johnson has form in the field of non-delivery (the garden bridge, ‘Boris Island’ airport) and seems to be setting himself up for further failure by planning a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
No matter: it is intrinsic to his style of populism, like Trump’s, that the forces of resistance will always strive to betray the popular will.
In January, he used explicitly Bannonite language to warn of dark forces at work to thwart Brexit. “I think that people will feel betrayed,” he told the London radio station LBC. “And I think they will feel that there has been a great conspiracy by the deep state of the UK, the people who really run the country, to overturn the verdict of the people.” Those who frustrated that verdict would “reap the whirlwind”.
Now that he is in Number 10, those words – especially his deployment of the American jargon ‘deep state’ – seem more pointed than ever.
At least as important as Brexit itself is blaming those who – in the PM’s opinion – have dared to obstruct it. This marks the replacement of a standard governing ethos with a digitised blame culture as the driving force of the Downing Street engine.
Disruption is more fun than order
Bannon has reportedly described himself thus: “I’m a Leninist. Lenin … wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Johnson would never go that far: unlike Bannon, he enjoys the flummery of English tradition – from posh boy Bullingdon Club antics to the trappings of high office – too much to be a true anarchist. But he shares Bannon’s love of political theatre, disruption and display. And – as he has shown in his response to the Supreme Court ruling – he is unimpressed by rules, at least when they apply to him.
As one acquaintance of Bannon says: “At heart, Steve is a showman.” So, too, is Johnson: the politician whose biggest break was appearing on Have I Got News For You. What incredible damage this infantile instinct has already caused on both sides of the Atlantic.
For Bannon, of course, the trick is never to be taken too seriously. It suits him perfectly to be the object of media obsession but – from time to time – to be dismissed as a fantasist and a scruffy buffoon. It suits him just fine that not too much attention is paid, too often, to the network that connects him to Johnson, Farage, Robinson and so many others.
Who wants the burden of true accountability? How much more fun it is to seek the spotlight intermittently, wreak havoc in this or that country – say, the United Kingdom – and then disappear beneath the surface, until next time.
And the Tories? Bannon will be watching what goes on as the Conservative Party gathers in Manchester with a wry grin. He’ll be everywhere, and nowhere. As Verbal Kint says in The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
All photographs Getty Images