This explains why Brexiteers never trusted May. For May, who voted for Remain, Brexit was always a technical challenge of public policy that the cruel gods of politics had inexplicably forced her to solve in return for her spot in the limelight. If only she accomplished this devilishly difficult task, she believed, she could go on to be a good old-fashioned prime minister.
Johnson, however, has always understood that Brexit is as much a symbol as a cause. A lot of people voted for Brexit out of a desire to show an establishment they had come to loath who was really in charge; above and beyond negotiating an exit, pleasing them would require the leader to prove that (s)he is on the side of the angry people rather than on that of technocratic elites.
Now, Johnson is very much a product of the British establishment that has fallen out of favor. But like Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland and Donald Trump in the United States, he has made a name for himself in politics by assailing the pieties of left-liberal orthodoxy. And while the deal he presented to Parliament was little more than May’s hard-won package with copious lipstick smeared on top, the rhetoric he has employed since taking office has been radically different. By unabashedly leaning into populist language and loudly denouncing traditional institutions from Parliament to the Supreme Court, he has shown that he sees Brexit as the beginning, rather than the end, of Britain’s cultural revolution.
David Frum: The U.S. is abandoning its interests in Brexit
Johnson has remade himself—as well as the Conservatives, the oldest political party in the world—in the image of populism.
He depicts the country’s politics as being defined by a clash between two basic forces: On the one hand is an out-of-touch elite that is so beholden to its left-liberal values that it would gladly override the will of British voters. On the other hand are the pure people, who have voted for Brexit in a heroic attempt to put a stop to the elite’s domination of the country. Johnson’s core promise is to help the pure people triumph over the corrupt elite.
Ever since coming to office, Johnson has used this basic narrative to delegitimize any independent institution that clashes with him. Styling the Conservatives as the “party of the people,” he has attacked the legitimacy of the courts, the media, and even Parliament itself. As he said to loud laughs and a rousing round of applause at the Conservative Party Conference, “Voters have more say over [the British reality-television show] I’m a Celebrity than they do over this House of Commons.”
It is this populist side that has allowed Johnson to keep the loyalty of hard Brexiteers even as he has made more or less the same concessions that led them to denounce May as a traitor. What they want more than anything else is for Brexit to be a tool with which they can smash the existing establishment; by dressing up his relatively conciliatory stance toward Europe in the clothes of cultural revolution, Johnson has been able to assure them that the project of lambasting the elite will live on after they have signed off on his deal.