This week’s downfall of Boris Johnson and the death of Silvio Berlusconi — two of Europe’s best-known and most successful populist politicians — has shone a spotlight on how much European politics has changed in the last few decades.
After taking office for the first time in 1994, Berlusconi led four nonconsecutive Italian governments, leaving the prime minister’s office for the final time in 2011. As Italy’s longest-serving PM, he showed a remarkable ability to bounce back from sex scandals and corruption cases and, in many ways, was a forerunner of many of Europe’s populist politicians of today, including Johnson, and indeed further afield too, such as former US President Donald Trump.
Internationally, Berlusconi had strange political bedfellows, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, similar to the populists of a more recent vintage, such as Trump. As recently as October, Berlusconi was reportedly still describing Putin as a “friend,” despite Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
When Berlusconi first assumed power in Italy, only a handful of key states with populations over 20 million — including Venezuela — had populist leaders. However, this then relatively small populist club expanded significantly after the onset of the 2007-08 international financial crisis, which heralded what has been called the Great Recession. The economic downturns and austerity seen in the wake of that economic tsunami was key to the rise of populism in Europe.
The biggest rise in populism across Europe and the wider world has been seen in the last decade, including Trump winning power in 2016 and Johnson doing the same in the UK in 2019. For those who prefer their political history neatly arranged, it is perhaps fitting that Johnson’s political career may be ending in the same week as Berlusconi died.
“In the current populist era, it cannot be completely ruled out that Johnson may yet try to stage a Trump-style political comeback”
On the same day as Berlusconi’s passing at the age of 86, Johnson formally submitted his resignation as an MP. The implosion of the latter’s political career, for now at least, came ahead of Thursday’s release of a hugely damning report into his behavior as prime minister in the midst of the pandemic, during the so-called Partygate scandal.
However, while Johnson, who is 58, may seem politically dead, in the current populist era it cannot be completely ruled out that he may yet try to stage a Trump-style political comeback after the Conservative Party loses power, potentially at the next general election. Despite all of his many flaws, the former prime minister remains popular among many Conservative members.
Indeed, a group called the Conservative Democratic Organisation appears to be fast becoming a “bring back Johnson” campaign. Remarkably, this grouping is even encouraging party members to deselect any current Conservative MPs who show support for Thursday’s damning Privileges Committee report, despite the fact it was agreed by a bipartisan group of legislators.
What makes Johnson’s appeal for some Conservatives so potent is that he won in 2019 the party’s largest majority in the House of Commons since the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. Moreover, rather than losing a general election, he was deposed from Downing Street in an internal party vote, which large numbers of Conservative members may regret when the party next loses power, despite his obvious ethical flaws.
Incredible as it may seem, it therefore cannot be completely ruled out that Johnson may try to run again for the party’s leadership in future years. In the last century, four people have served second stints in Downing Street, including Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill, who he still has big, unfulfilled ambitions to try to emulate.
The fact that Johnson could yet stage a comeback despite all of his improper behavior, which would have definitively ended political careers in a different era, showcases that the era of populism is far from over.
Some data indicates that the number of populist leaders globally has fallen since the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, populism is still widely prevalent in Europe, as seen with the 2022 success of Giorgia Meloni in Italy. Prime Minister Meloni, a right-wing nationalist supported by Berlusconi, exemplifies how European populism tends to be of a different, conservative variety to Latin America, where left-wing populism dominates.
While leaders from different continents often have different flavors of populism, they tend to win power through common campaign tactics. This includes attacks on immigration.
Although populists can be very effective campaigners, they tend to be very poor at governing. This has been the case with Trump and Johnson, and was too with Berlusconi.
Take the example of Johnson who, despite winning a big majority in 2019, achieved very little of significance during his years in power. This includes the failure of his central vision to “level-up” the UK by increasing pay, living standards and the number of jobs in areas of the country where they are relatively low, so that all areas are more equal.
Equally, Berlusconi did not leave a legacy of great accomplishment either. His time in charge of Italy was largely spent in fruitless battles with the judiciary and media.
Yet, while the governing record of politicians like Johnson and Berlusconi has been poor, populism may only grow in appeal once again. This could be fueled by the aftermath of the pandemic, which triggered a deeper, broader global recession than even that of the 2007-08 financial crisis.
Moreover, rising economic inequality is also key. While some affluent cohorts have seen their wealth increase since the pandemic began, many poorer people have seen their incomes stagnate or worse.
So, while the respective fates of Berlusconi and Johnson may indicate the end of an era in European politics, the phenomenon of populism may yet rebound. This is despite the fact that politicians of this ilk have done so little to tackle the economic and political challenges that powered them to office.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics. This piece was originally published in the ArabNews