The left needs to start learning from, and stop laughing at, Boris

If only the left could find a way to stop laughing at Boris, they would find that they could learn quite a lot from him, writes Sunder Katwala.

Boris Johnson is Britain’s most popular politician. The competition isn’t even close. David Cameron is facing not just mid-term blues, but the additional conundrum of how to nurse a fragile Coalition through them. While Ed Miliband looks to define himself in a way that might start to break through into the public consciousness; George Osborne and Nick Clegg are vying for the wooden spoon in the unpopularity stakes. So Boris stands alone, through an astounding gravity-defying feat. Only he can get stranded on a zip wire and come out looking good.

All of the standard anti-political complaints about the entire political class – “they are all the same”, “they have never had a proper job”, and “nobody seems to stand for anything anymore” – all come with an asterisk, and an “except for Boris” disclaimer. That is no mean feat. But his opponents still don’t get Boris. Instead, he is often treated as one big joke, with his popularity explained away by casting him as Westminster’s court jester. Indeed, his opponents risk showing some contempt for the voters by rather patronizingly suggesting that the public are just having a laugh, and will soon need to sober up and get serious about politics again. It’s about time they stopped laughing and started learning.

The tendency to dismiss Boris can be found across the political and media spectrum, among MPs and commentators on left and right. It may, though, be particularly dangerous for Labour and the liberal-left, who risk repeating the mistake of fatally underestimating political opponents that they have made too often before.

Misunderstanding the appeal of Boris fits a pattern through which rational liberals demonstrate a disconnection from how people think about politics and the role of personality within it. How many people were adamant that Ronald Reagan, perhaps the politician who Boris Johnson resembles most, could never make it from Hollywood to the White House?

Remember, more recently, the widespread assumption that Al Gore, as a brain-box policy wonk, had only to turn up to the televised Presidential debates for George W Bush’s campaign to collapse into ridicule?

And Boris’ fellow blond Margaret Thatcher was also deeply underestimated on her road to Downing Street. Partly that reflected discombobulation at the sheer novelty of a woman bidding for the Premiership in the 1970s. But she was also dismissed as a Home Counties politician, unlikely to play outside the south, just as Boris is assumed to be a local London brand.

Boris Johnson has been extremely lucky in how his political opponents treated his bid for power in London, being just as “misunderestimated” by his political opponents as Bush and Reagan were. In London, Labour cast him as a clown and could not believe the voters would ever elect him, right up to the moment that they did. By helping to set expectations so low, implying that Boris could never be up to the job, and that it would be a miracle if London survived his mayorality, Labour massively boosted his chances of re-election. If they don’t change their tune, they could end up letting him walk into Downing Street without ever offering him any serious scrutiny.

People like Boris because he is real. Of course, Boris brings an element of performance to “being Boris” – a splendid character homage to PG Wodehouse – but the persona is inimitable, because it is a self-evidently authentic reflection of the man who he is. People want authenticity and character in politics, but struggle to find it from what they perceive to be an identikit political class.

So people like Boris because he is unscripted. He takes risks. He writes what he thinks in his newspaper columns. And it helps that the London mayoral system means he is the one national politician whose position does not depend on patronage.

The left also believes that Boris will fail because he is too right-wing. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote recently about his “dog whistle” to the right. This charge of “dog whistling” is much over-used by the left. And it is a particularly odd claim about a man who will headline a fringe meeting/pro-Boris rally called “Re-elected and Olympotastic” at the Tory conference. Boris tells everybody what he thinks using a foghorn, not a dog whistle, using his Telegraph column to let his views be known well beyond his London bailiwick. Where Boris is right-wing, he is out and proud.

But he is among the most liberal of Tories too. People also like Boris because he is an optimist. Boris doesn’t have to learn to love Danny Boyle’s Britain, because he naturally does. Like Reagan and Thatcher, and indeed Blair too, Boris Johnson can stake a claim to the future, because he believes in it, and wants to live in it. Being Boris is entirely incompatible with the narrative of cultural pessimism which can leave the right marooned somewhere in the 19th century. That is why he described the idea of a “broken society” as “piffle”. On the night of the Olympic opening ceremony, Boris was telling a Guildhall audience about why the benefits of immigration in making London the world’s greatest city. While Tories worry about their inability to win ethnic minority votes, Boris won truckloads of them in London, winning over a million votes to return him as Mayor.

Strangely, the left is less comfortable with optimism than the Boris wing of the right. It may be that the inclusive patriotism of the Olympics offers an antidote to the allergic reaction which too many on the left still seem to respond to any form of national pride. But much of the left worries about moments which cheer the country up – fearing that it could reinforce the status quo, and take people’s mind off austerity and cuts. This is a deep strategic error. In eras when the left has sought to mobilise anger and despair, such as the 1930s and the 1980s, it has been routed. It has prospered only in those moments when it found a way to articulate national renewal and a sense of shared hope – in 1945, 1966, and 1997.  The instinct of many, struggling to define a new argument for the left, is to at least defend its great historic achievements of the Attlee post-war settlement. But the modern left will need to find its vision of the future too, as Ed Miliband’s policy chief Jon Cruddas acknowledges in his New Statesman essay this week.

So Boris’ ability to connect with optimism is something that the left could learn from if it did start to take Boris seriously, though it may well struggle to emulate the sprinkle of stardust with which he cheers people up.

Of course, the popularity of Boris may not last. Governing London is different to being given the nuclear codes. He is a politician who believes in soaraway ambitions, and may find it harder to connect to feelings of insecurity. That challenge mirrors the opposing test for those politicians on the left, who are in touch with insecurity, yet who struggle to articulate a more aspirational vision. In times like these, politicians need to connect to both hopes and fears.

There is no vacancy in the Tory leadership for some time yet.  Boris’ supporters may worry about his kicking for home a lap or two too soon. In Birmingham next week, Boris faces what David Miliband called a “Heseltine moment” when speculation about his challenging Gordon Brown dominated Labour’s 2008 conference. But Boris seems less likely to slip on a banana skin in handling the pressure.

Boris has benefitted, in City Hall, from being both in power but outside the Coalition. An oppositional persona is harder to maintain if facing the trade-offs in government – though both Reagan and Thatcher showed that it can be done.

Nobody knows if Boris can turn popularity into Downing Street power. But the real joke will be on anybody who is still laughing at what has surely become a serious prospect.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future, who will be holding fringe debates in Manchester and Birmingham over the next two weeks.

Boris Johnson in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
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The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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