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Britain’s Enemy of the People?

As a student of the classical world, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson must be aware that the model of the upper-class demagogue gaining power by stirring up the passions of aggrieved plebeians goes back to the late Roman Republic. If he manages to suspend Parliament and push through a hard Brexit, Britain may well face a similar fate.

LONDON – The idea that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a man of the people, a tribune of the common man fighting the established elites, might seem anomalous, even outright bizarre. After all, Johnson is a perfect example of the English elite: educated at Eton and Oxford, and possessed of all the exaggerated mannerisms, in speech and demeanor, of the British upper class. As a journalist and Member of Parliament, he has been mischievous and frequently dishonest, but always a committed voice of the Conservative establishment.

And yet, here he is, pretending to represent “the voice of the people” against the voices in Parliament, which, from left to right, oppose his hardline approach to Britain’s divorce from the European Union. It has been a feature of the Brexit campaign to paint all who oppose an abrupt and complete withdrawal from the EU as enemies of the people. Since the people spoke in the 2016 referendum, any attempt to soften Brexit’s negative consequences by compromising with the EU, or postponing the break, is portrayed as an assault on the people’s will.

Johnson is facing massive opposition in Parliament, especially after his decision to suspend Parliament to deliver Brexit on October 31, deal or no deal. On Tuesday, after former minister Phillip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats, he even lost the Tory majority of one. Making matters worse for him, Parliament voted to take away the prime minister’s control of the Brexit agenda. Tories who voted for the motion have been purged. This will almost certainly result in a general election, which Johnson will frame as a battle between “the people” and “the politicians” who stand in his way.

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