It emerged on Monday that a former senior policy adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently spoke warmly of Hungary, arguably the most undemocratic state in the 28-nation EU.

Predictably, the opposition Labour party tried to make instant political capital out of the remarks in Budapest of Tim Montgomerie, an influential pro-Brexit columnist who was until a few weeks ago Mr Johnson’s social justice adviser.

I am reminded, however, of the reaction of the Vichy police captain in the 1942 movie Casablanca to the well-founded accusation that gambling was going on in Rick’s café. “I am shocked . . . ”

For the plain truth is that, since the UK’s Brexit referendum of June 2016, the governments of Theresa May and Mr Johnson have cultivated warm relations with Hungary and Viktor Orban, its conservative nationalist prime minister.

What is more, Mr Montgomerie is entirely correct to point out that Mr Johnson and Mr Orban have much in common with Donald Trump, the rightwing populist US president, and Nigel Farage, the evil genius of Brexit.

“Why are people voting for Boris and Viktor and Nigel and Donald?” Mr Montgomerie asked. “ . . . It is about long-term trends in economics and culture that are changing how people align themselves.”

Mr Montgomerie could have expanded his argument. The more that the Conservatives have evolved into a party of rightwing populism and English nationalism, the more they have come to resemble the Law and Justice party (PiS) that has governed Poland since 2015.

Indeed, PiS won re-election in October with a strikingly similar campaign to that of Mr Johnson in December. Each blended patriotic conservatism with pledges of extra public spending on social services and a higher minimum wage.

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The parallels between the UK, Hungary and Poland go even further. Just as the Conservatives are weak in London, the liberal capital city, but strong in the English provinces, so Mr Orban’s Fidesz party and PiS are weak in Budapest and Warsaw but strong in conservative-minded outlying areas of their countries.

There are also similarities between Mr Johnson and Matteo Salvini, the hard-right leader of the League, Italy’s most popular party. The newspaper column that Mr Johnson wrote in 2018, comparing burka-wearing Muslims with “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”, could easily have been penned by Mr Salvini.

How is Brexit connected to these trends? The answer is that, in the British political context, the battle over EU membership disguised what was in many ways a much deeper struggle over national identity, social values and economic pressures related to globalisation and the western world’s post-2008 financial crash.

Similar conflicts are troubling all European societies, but the responses vary according to national political culture. A particularly interesting example is Austria, where a conservative-Green coalition is taking power on Tuesday.

The new government in Vienna proposes to blend rightwing economic and cultural policies, including a tougher stance on asylum-seekers and girls in head scarves, with intensified efforts to tackle climate change.

It is a formula that has something in common with Mr Johnson’s plans for the UK, except he will not balance the budget and reduce government debt as the Austrian coalition has promised to do.

Despite these resemblances between British and continental European politics, the UK remains exceptional in that it is about to leave the EU on January 31. Even the superficially Eurosceptic leaders of Hungary, Italy and Poland do not intend to follow the UK down that road.

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Further reading

Rebecca Long Bailey blames Labour defeat on Brexit ‘process’ obsession
Ms Long Bailey has defended Mr Corbyn’s approach, despite him presiding over the party’s worst election defeat for 80 years. “I don’t just agree with the policies, I’ve spent the last four years writing them,” she wrote in an article in Tribune magazine on Monday night. (Jim Pickard, FT)

Brace yourself: the next phase of Brexit is going to get messy (Mujtaba Rahman, The Guardian)

Sajid Javid sets March 11 date for Budget to ‘level up’ UK regions (Chris Giles, FT)

Brexit in 2020 — a clearer vision? (Anand Menon, The UK in a Changing Europe)

Hard numbers

Greggs/Boris Johnson: true north (Lex)

Britain’s newly elected prime minister will know he is in the north when he sees pasty shops, not Pret a Mangers, on every street corner



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