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4 November 2015

Bojo is as Bojo does: how Boris Johnson killed the art of satire

Boris had a perfect grasp of the way to play the new-old game: develop a full-blown shtick-man of a caricature of yourself and use it to return all that’s smashed at you.

By Will Self

Me and Boris Johnson? Well, it’s a bit – and I stress, a bit – like Androcles and the lion. Picture us, squaring up to one another on the blood-soaked sand of the arena. There he is, the white-blond barbarian, mouthing the sickening platitudes of his nauseating credo; and there am I, wild of mane and acuminate of claw. “Kill him! Kill him!” the crowd bays, and really I would oblige, because nothing gets my gastronomic juices flowing better than the prospect of munching down on a shamelessly opportunistic, crony-capitalistic, ego-ballistic, posturing popinjay who appears wholly deluded about the inverse correlation that exists between his ambition and his ability. But I can’t, because many years ago Boris Johnson removed a thorn from the highly sensitive velvety pad of my paw, and a lion – even one who’s spent the balance of his majority penned up in the blood-soaked arena of the British mediasphere – never forgets.

A couple of years ago, reviewing a brace of books about Johnson for the London Review of Books, Jonathan Coe advanced a devastating analysis of a phenomenon best described as an enigma wrapped inside a whoopee cushion. Johnson, Coe contended, was the first truly self-satirising politician; he comes already spread with greasy opprobrium. That we all saw him applying the goo is besides the point, since he slips from our grasp every time we try to grab hold of him. But Coe’s analysis goes further than Johnson – he sees the phenomenon not as a condemnation of politics, but as a failure of satire. The whole tendency of postwar British satire, he argues, has been a retreat from the real responsibility of supplying an alternative, while firing volley after volley of arrows that, although they may well look beautiful in flight, often tickle their quarries rather than despatching them to the underworld, where Bob Crow reigns for ever over a Hades of inflexible rostering and collective bargaining.

Quite what satire-with-built-in-alternative-and-enlightened-policies would be like, Coe doesn’t venture, but I suspect not a lot of laughs. Have I Got News for You, the satire show on which Johnson and I were loose stablemates (although we never coincided on air), once generated a fair volume of laughs, but that was before the prototypical self-satirising politician ruined the game by being too good at it. Back in the days when media didn’t function in a continuous real-time feedback loop, the political class really was naive about television, seeing it as the acme of zeitgeisty populism. This gave us a blissful period – loosely from 1995 to 2005 – when show-business-for-ugly-people (politics) intersected with show business, and we saw George Galloway making like a pussycat licking cream from Rula Lenska’s cupped hands, and any number of less flamboyant tribunes queuing up to have the other panellists cut them a new, bespoke arsehole.

And then there was Boris, who had a perfect grasp of the way to play the new-old game: develop a full-blown shtick-man of a caricature of yourself and use it to return all that’s smashed at you – serial adultery, accessory to violence, Johann Hari-stylie journalistic legerdemain, shameless banker brown-nosing, property-bubble-inflating boosterism – with the same, self-deprecating drop volley. The viewers love it; hell, I love it. What these sorts of naughty Tories have going for them – and Johnson is in this respect an Alan Clark phenotype – is a robustly Augustinian view of the moral cosmos. “Look at me fall!” they hoot. “It’s hilarious!”

But Johnson hasn’t just perfected the slapstick of ethical evasion, he has gone further into the virtual realm, proving that his white-blond hair isn’t all he has in common with that ace Sixties scenester and sculptor of the human psyche, Andy Warhol. There’s a smattering of Guy Debord in Boris as well – he digs the fertility of late capitalism’s spectacular mode; he, too, relishes creating situations. Not, I hasten to add, that I suspect Johnson of having a secret theory-habit, any more than I’d accuse him of piety: what you see is emphatically what you get – but more so.

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To return to the arena: he interviewed me for the Daily Telegraph during my small saison de tabloid enfer, back in 1996; and at a time when I, and those close to me, were under the cosh, his jovial unwillingness to judge felt like a barb being removed. Hence my unwillingness to go for the jugular – Johnson is as Johnson does, so there’s no great mystery there; and what we affect to find mysterious – his enduring popularity with the pesky electorate – is no less sublunary. This is what the union of satire and politics looks like: tousled, baby-faced (something he shares with his alumni Cameron and Osborne), while at root insufferably knowing.

Johnson may well fall crotch-first on to the European vaulting horse as he launches himself way too late at the side he thinks is winning – but if not then, some other time. It would be a shame, though, to be denied the perfect politico-satiric general election bout, with po-faced Jerry in the red corner and Johnson in the other, laughing all the way to No 10.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe