Patrick Smyth: Right-wing populists are finding that a comeback sometimes isn’t an option

The Tory libertarian right has been destroyed by the failures of Johnson and Truss, while Donald Trump’s return looks less certain by the day

“Hasta la vista,” Boris Johnson concluded his farewell to the Commons. And he had earlier spoken of Roman dictator Cincinnatus who made a comeback from ploughing his fields long enough to bring Rome through an emergency, then resigning and returning to his farm. In the spirit of his hero Winston Churchill, of Charles De Gaulle, and Juan Peron, Boris was willing to make a return. But it was not to be.

Comebacks – or attempted comebacks – are the order of the day. The phenomena of Trumpism, Brexitism/Borisism, Bolsonarism, Orbanism, the populist radical right movements, are all being similarly tested at this time. With varying degrees of success.

It is yet too early to say the tide has turned decisively on the kindred movements which have changed the face of politics globally since the 2008 crash. After all, Italy has just elected a scarcely reconstructed fascist, Giorgia Meloni, as prime minister, though it is notable that her first act has been to learn from Liz Truss’s experience by ditching a programme of tax cuts and spending increases. In April, Hungary’s Viktor Orban’s ultra-right Fidesz party easily won a fourth consecutive term, taking two-thirds of seats.

And as Israel prepares next week for its fifth election since 2019, Bibi Netanyahu and the rightwing religious bloc he leads, look to be within one or two seats of returning to power.


But there are also signs that other leaders of these movements are having some difficulty ensuring their own second comings. Boris Johnson found that although he still retains support in the Tory parliamentary party, even possibly a majority, the party is so deeply divided on his role that it would be ungovernable. Discretion being the better part of valour, he withdrew his nomination to lead it.

Jair Bolsonaro this weekend is also likely to be ousted by his nemesis Lula da Silva in Brazil’s presidential election second round.

Some 43 per cent of Republicans do not want Trump to run again. Republicans may take a majority in the House... but Trump’s own prospects for 2024 are far from clear

And in the US, while the embattled Donald Trump, facing multiple court challenges two weeks before the midterm elections, remains the darling of much of the Republican Party, he is seen by many of its candidates as a campaign liability. Many have asked him to stay away. Overall, a poll this week found 44 per cent of voters view Trump favourably, and 53 per cent unfavourably. Some 43 per cent of Republicans do not want him to run again. Republicans may take a majority in the House, with the Senate still in the balance, but Trump’s own prospects for 2024 are far from clear.

The probable eclipse of some of these big beasts of the populist right will inevitably call into question the long-term viability of the movements they lead. Can Trumpism survive without Trump, or with a fatally wounded Trump? And how does the Brexit movement retain its political identity and its punch with Johnson and his acolyte Liz Truss, both discredited and pushed off centre stage by a party whose leaders still profess to support the Brexit cause?

Revealed as fantasy

Their political implosion has also contributed to seriously damaging that very cause. A recent YouGov poll records that only 34 per cent of those surveyed say Britain was right to leave the EU, while 54 per cent say it was wrong. And, just as importantly, experience of the ideology in action has completely undermined the credibility of the libertarians who saw their opportunity in Brexit and rode it to power, championing their extreme programme of tax cuts and deregulation.

As historian Timothy Garton Ash put it: “A journey that began with the slogan ‘take back control’ ended with the most spectacular loss of control.” And an ideology based on the post-imperial delusion that “Great” Britain can go it alone, just as Trump insists that he will Make America Great Again all by itself, is revealed as fantasy. The libertarian project is holed below the water line.

‘I think the hope was that the Kwarteng budget was going to mark a very significant moment,’ Nigel Farage told Politico. ‘That now appears to be dead’

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who had similarly been advocating for low-tax, small-state ideals for decades, is brutally realistic about the setback: “I think the hope was that the Kwarteng budget was going to mark a very significant moment,” Farage told Politico. “That now appears to be dead. And I would have thought dead for a very, very long time. The people in the Conservative Party that I talk to, who think on my wavelength… have pretty much given up.”

Back in 2012, a now-infamous five – Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore, and Liz Truss, all briefly members of the Truss cabinet – co-authored a little-noticed pamphlet, Britannia Unchained, setting out their libertarian agenda. It was very much in the spirit of Ayn Rand, the right-wing US philosopher and author, guru of an extreme anti-statist, libertarian and individualist worldview.

They might have done well to take another piece of Rand’s advice to heart as they implemented that vision. “You can avoid reality,” she said, “but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”