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Black sheep of the (European) family. How Viktor Orban and Boris Johnson found success, and undermined the EU, by using the same populist playbook

Orban Boris
©EPA-EFE/VICKIE FLORES  |   British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) meets with the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban (R), outside n10 Downing Street in London, Britain, 28 May 2021.

As British camera bulbs flashed at 10 Downing Street in late May, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was asked by a British reporter whether he saw UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as an ally: “its a different dimension, I can’t compare myself to him”, he said.

The visit vexed politicians and pundits of all leanings: one particular bone of contention was Orban becoming only the second EU leader to pay an official visit to the UK since Brexit. Senior UK opposition party politicians recalled Orban’s 2015 “Muslim invaders” rhetoric and characterised his visit as an opportunity to admonish him. The Liberal Democrats leader characterised Orban’s policies as “a sustained assault on Hungarian democracy, on press freedom and on human rights”. 

Johnson’s Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng defended the meeting, saying his boss must meet leaders with “values we don't necessarily share” – but that description is open to debate. After all, Johnson has himself compared Muslim women in burkas to "letter boxes" and "bank robbers", and was only returning the invitation that saw him visit Budapest as foreign secretary in 2018.

It is not entirely clear how Orban, for whom an invitation from a Western leader is a rarity, had secured a photo opportunity outside 10 Downing Street. The BBC’s diplomatic editor James Lansdale, citing UK insider sources, wrote that “the first (reason) I am told, is that the Hungarian leader asked for the visit”. However it is a matter of record that since storming back to power with a supermajority in 2010, Orban and his Fidesz party have spent considerable time and energy – not to mention ten of millions of euros – on strengthening ties with the Conservative Party. 

In 2013 Hungary set up the right-wing think tank the Danube Institute in Budapest. It is generously funded and officially partnered with Tory think tanks The Centre for Policy Studies and Policy Exchange. Hungary has also given lucrative fellowships and book deals to well known Brit academics and pundits. Orban meanwhile secured the loyalties of UK-based members of the Hungarian diaspora such as Frank Furedi, who dutifully framed the UK shadow foreign minster’s criticism of Orban as a “hysterical reaction (which) illustrates an arrogant, almost colonial mentality directed at people who aren’t ‘like us’.” One big player on Johnson’s team, Munira Mirza, director of the Number 10 policy unit, has written for Spiked, worked at the Policy Exchange and was Johnson’s cultural advisor during his time as mayor of London. Furedi also supervised her PhD. Whoever engineered the invite, his significant efforts to court the Conservatives seem to have paid off. 

Springtime for Boris and Hungary

At the end of the 2000s, as Fidesz and the Tories were about to regain power, the most visible similarities between the UK and Hungary were the names and the values of their centre-left prime ministers – Gordon Brown and Gordon Bajnai. Both became leaders mid-term and steadied the ship in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, only to find themselves in the political wilderness by mid-2010. Amidst the upheaval, “the Gordon Bs” – and Brown in particular – had advanced a level of international coordination that averted global recession, only for it to dissipate into the bureaucratic inertia of the 2010s. 

In the decade since, Johnson and Orban have prospered, seeing off threats from rising far-right parties and movements by co-opting some of their policies and rhetoric. They won large majorities in their hugely divided nations, drivers and beneficiaries of the rising ideology of the 2010s: the populist nativism embodied Donald Trump’s election campaign chief Steve Bannon. They embraced a divisive brand of politics in which campaigning eclipses policy manifestos and reasoned debate, and secured long-coveted premierships in the process. Johnson allegedly made his Islamophobic “letterbox” comment after a meeting with Bannon. For his part, Orban handsomely rewarded Bannon for a visit to Budapest, where he spoke to the Fidesz party faithful and was also photographed meeting him in private.

Some of the amity between Fidesz and the Conservative Party predates the Johnson era, however. Johnson’s old schoolmate and rival David Cameron, the pro-EU prime minister who called the Brexit referendum, was the only other Union leader to oppose Jean Claude Juncker’s nomination to become European Commission president in 2014. Cameron also visited Budapest during the lead-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016, when Orban, again happy for the photo op with a G7 leader, backed three of the four EU reform proposals that Cameron was pushing as part of his campaign. However it was only after Johnson’s ascendency that the similarities between Fidesz and the Conservative Party really began to show.

Parallel lives?

Around the same age - Orban is a year older than Johnson - the politicians have taken different paths to arrive at similar destinations. Both crave the spotlight. Orban grew up with dreams of becoming a professional footballer, while Johnson once told a group of schoolchildren: “I wanted to be a rock guitarist and I learnt the opening chords of a song called ‘Smoke on the Water’”. Moreover, “Boris” is a kind of stage name for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - in private he is said to answer to “Al”. While Johnson voters say they like him because he offers a license to relax on their personal opinions, his former boss Max Hastings has a more withering assessment. “Only in the star-crazed, frivolous Britain of the 21st century could such a man have risen so high,” his former editor at The Daily Telegraph wrote, adding that “he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification”.

Tellingly, Orban got closer to his dreams of glory than learning the most ubiquitous riff of the 1970s British guitar shop, making it into the youth side of his local team Videoton. While Johnson filed fanciful copy as The Daily Telegraph’s EU correspondent in the 90s, Orban was already at the top table of European politics, and remains more strategic and detail-oriented than the flighty old Etonian. Nevertheless, there is an element of showbiz in Orban’s schtick too, as he confessed in a candid moment with a group of far-right Flemish youths in 2018. “You know it’s a combination of politics and entertaining business (sic) - show business, you know…” he said. 

Each fits a national archetype - Johnson has been described as Falstaffian, while Orban is an invocation of the cunning peasant Ludas Matyi. In short, both men have a quality of local relatability that goes beyond policy. Johnson’s backing of Brexit probably tipped the balance in that momentous 2016 referendum, and like Orban, changed the politics of his country for good. 

Same schtick, different decade

If Hungary and the UK are locked in similar political cycles, then the latter country is around a decade behind. For Orban, his populist year zero was 2006, the year of his last election defeat, while for Johnson it was the year of the Brexit referendum, a decade later. In 2010 Johnson was just two years into an eight-year term as London mayor and deemed to be at the liberal end of the Conservative Party. For his part, in 2010 Orban was reaping the electoral benefits of an opposition term of declaring the government of Ferenc Gyurcsany illegitimate in light of a leaked speech made in May 2006 in which the Socialist Party leader called for an end to the lies of his party. Having lost the election the previous month after bruising defeats in televised debates with Gyurcsany, Orban concentrated on demonising Hungary’s left wing and acquiring media outlets that would spend the next four years relentlessly supporting his negative campaigning against the left-wing.

Following the advice of his then advisor Gyula Teller, Orban was shifting his focus from the polgári (bourgeoise or civic) voters to disaffected Hungarians who had lost out in the wake of the regime change. This foreshadowed Johnson’s capture in December 2019 of traditionally left-wing but socially conservative “red wall” constituencies - a term, it should be noted, that had been invented by a right wing pollster only four months earlier. In that election Johnson won the biggest Tory majority for decades on a “Get Brexit Done” ticket from an electorate as exhausted as the one that had delivered Orban his first full majority with barely a manifesto, in 2010. 

Brits bed in on the Danube banks

Fidesz formed The Danube Institute (DI) in 2013 after luring to Budapest its president John O’Sullivan, a Liverpudlian journalist who worked as sketch writer for The Daily Telegraph and as a speech writer for his close friend Margaret Thatcher. The septuagenarian O’Sullivan’s resumé has not only provided a more reputable sheen to Orban’s increasingly far-right politics, but also helped to access a network of journalists and pundits at organisations across the English-speaking world.

The taxpayer-funded DI’s guests and visiting fellows have included far-right thinker Douglas Murray, Johnson’s former aide Tim Montgomerie and the right-wing historian Norman Stone, who met O’Sullivan when co-writing a Thatcher speech with him. DI’s partner organisations include the London-based think tanks The Centre for Policy Studies (co-founded by Thatcher) and Policy Exchange (co-founded and currently chaired by Conservative Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove). Johnson’s former aide Montgomerie saw his career hit the rocks after discussing “the limits of liberalism” at a DI event. The ultra-conservative writer Roger Scruton was also a regular visitor to the DI, and a café that houses the personal effects of the late academic opened a stone’s throw from the Budapest Parliament in 2020. More Scruton-themed cafés are planned across Hungary. 

Media grabs and culture vultures 

After suffering bruising defeats in televised debates and elections, by 2010 Orban fully understood the power of the media. He worked for years to create right-wing dominance in the Hungarian media, and at this point indirectly controls 80-90% of the outlets. For Johnson, some of the “force field”, as Orban once promised to build around Hungary’s right wing, was already in place when he won the election in December 2019. Britain’s three most powerful newspaper groups, the Telegraph, the Murdoch press and Associated Newspapers, have long been strongly pro-Conservative - the Daily Telegraph has even acquired the nickname The Borisograph, such is its loyalty to its one-time Brussels correspondent and later columnist. As the state broadcaster, the BBC is subject to rigorous impartiality rules that do not apply to newspapers. However the corporation funding by license fee is subject to renewal every ten years, and domestic news coverage, giving the incumbent government potential leverage, is increasingly viewed as tilted in favour of the Johnson government. Editors at the BBC’s flagship political talkshow Question Time, for example, edited out audience laughter from an election-campaign episode after Johnson was asked whether he believed it was important to tell the truth. Only the applause remained.

A decade on from Cameron appointing an ally to a key BBC recruitment role, appointments tend to favour establishment and conservative views. Meanwhile the Conservatives have twice attempted to appoint the ultra right-wing former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as the chairman of broadcasting regulator Ofcom. Another establishment figure is the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, who was found to have breached impartiality and accuracy guidelines in a report about Johnson’s then political opponent Jeremy Corbyn. Another state broadcaster Channel 4, which is highly respected and often highly critical of the Johnson government, may soon lose its public broadcaster status.  By 2020 the BBC was producing live coverage of migrants crossing the English Channel reminiscent of the Hungarian state news reports of 2015. Meanwhile Johnson’s Home Secretary Priti Patel poses for photo ops at the arrests of people traffickers. The importance of the media for Johnson is clear: even half a decade on from the Brexit referendum, as the tales of Brexit-induced disadvantages pile high, 49% of Britons aged 16 and over still support leaving the EU.

Cultural pressure is being applied too. While Fidesz has set up quasi autonomous history institutes and erected historical revisionist statuary by stealth, Johnson’s culture secretary went after the National Trust, which looks after many of the UK’s architectural and artistic treasures. The official made a veiled threat that the heritage charity could face cuts, after it released a report on Britain’s legacy of colonialism and slavery. 

Some areas of life are less easily coopted than the media. The judiciary has been more of bulwark against Orban than most areas of life – courts occasionally rule in favour of NGOs and against oligarchs in smaller cases – but the encroachments have gone right up to the Constitutional Court. When a judicial review organised by Johnson – furious at a high court ruling that Parliament should trigger Brexit – did not deliver call for sweeping reforms, he simply ignored its findings

However amid the noise of the culture wars and with media support, many democratic encroachments are ignored. Just as Orban has always devalued Parliament, from reducing the number of plenary sessions in his first spell as PM to his introduction of rule by decree in March 2020, Johnson unlawfully suspended Parliament after he became Tory leader in 2019. Just as Orban introduced in 2014 a highly irregular compensatory votes system for winning parties, without which he would not have retained his Constitutional supermajority that year, the Johnson government is planning to change the electoral laws for mayoral elections in England, after Labour won 11 of the 13 cities in the last vote. The common features of the laws is that they are designed to favour the currently unified state of the right-wing compared to the fractured nature of the left. Johnson is said to be planning a gerrymandering campaign too, again following in Orban’s footsteps. 

Whether the UK is about to experience a decade or more of one-party dominance, may depend on its opposition’s ability to set aside differences and form a progressive alliance. Labour MP Clive Lewis has suggested as much, and that might be one idea really worth exporting from Budapest. 

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  • Boris Johnson and Viktor Orban share a way of doing politics: they’re both populists craving for the spotlight, ready to exploit in their favour the divisions of their respective societies. They also share an irreverence for the European Union. Johnson was one of the leading figures of the Leave camp, while Orban became a nuisance for Brussels as he kept on defying, time and again, the EU values and policies. The two seem to use the same recipe to consolidate their grip on power, so it only makes sense that their respective oppositions may eventually take similar paths.
  • It is a matter of record that since storming back to power with a supermajority in 2010, Orban and his Fidesz party have spent considerable time and energy – not to mention ten of millions of euros – on strengthening ties with the Conservative Party.
  • Johnson and Orban have prospered, seeing off threats from rising far-right parties and movements by co-opting some of their policies and rhetoric. They won large majorities in their hugely divided nations, drivers and beneficiaries of the rising ideology of the 2010s: the populist nativism embodied Donald Trump’s election campaign chief Steve Bannon. They embraced a divisive brand of politics in which campaigning eclipses policy manifestos and reasoned debate, and secured long-coveted premierships in the process.
  • Amid the noise of the culture wars and with media support, many democratic encroachments are ignored. Just as Orban has always devalued Parliament, from reducing the number of plenary sessions in his first spell as PM to his introduction of rule by decree in March 2020, Johnson unlawfully suspended Parliament after he became Tory leader in 2019. Just as Orban introduced in 2014 a highly irregular compensatory votes system for winning parties, without which he would not have retained his Constitutional supermajority that year, the Johnson government is planning to change the electoral laws for mayoral elections in England, after Labour won 11 of the 13 cities in the last vote. The common features of the laws is that they are designed to favour the currently unified state of the right-wing compared to the fractured nature of the left. Johnson is said to be planning a gerrymandering campaign too, again following in Orban’s footsteps.
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