In recent days, newspapers have been publishing sycophantic pieces about Boris Johnson by his old university chums or muckers about town. The stories have been told before, the details are familiar. He greets old friends by speaking to them in Latin; he used to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets as a student; his high intelligence elevates and, indeed, isolates him from the struggles of mere mortals; he lives by Homeric codes and inhabits a pagan world of fickle gods; he has few close friends; he is the first classicist intellectual to become prime minister since Gladstone; he married the most beautiful girl at Oxford. And so, it goes on: a King’s Scholarship, the Eton Wall Game, Balliol, the Bullingdon Club, the Oxford Union… the languor of youth, the limitlessness of ambition. It’s all such bullshit, of course, especially when one considers the truth about the mature Johnson’s moral character – his lies and unprincipled cynicism, his narcissism and disloyalty – and his dismal record as a senior minister.
Johnson’s tenure as foreign secretary is considered to have been a disaster by the ministers, civil servants and diplomats who worked with and were forced to cover for him. I have spoken to senior diplomats about Johnson and they are united in their contempt. Peter Ricketts, a former permanent secretary in the Foreign Office and now a cross-bench peer, spoke for many when he said to me that, “Jeremy Hunt inherited a Foreign Office in disarray after the Boris Johnson years. Britain has been absent on parade as a foreign power – partly because of Brexit, partly because Johnson was not taken seriously.”
Iain Dale used last week’s New Statesman Diary to warn the left that it would be making a serious misjudgement if Johnson was dismissed as an alt-right populist. “They tried this tactic before the 2008 mayoral election and failed dismally to puncture the Boris balloon,” he wrote. Simon Fletcher, a former close aide to Jeremy Corbyn who also advised Ken Livingstone when he was defeated by Johnson in the London mayoral contest, made a similar warning in a recent piece: “Many good people inadvertently participate in the creation of Boris Johnson’s political persona, laughing along with one tousle-haired stunt and gaffe after another, believing that these things are damaging to him,” he wrote. “They are not. Johnson thrives on being a figure of fun because people like fun. His antics shield him from the reality of… his multiple failures as a political administrator. Far from ‘buffoon’ being a term that causes him trouble, it is an asset, a smile-inducing diversionary construct.” To defeat Johnson, Fletcher said, one must never underestimate him
I have never underestimated Johnson. Ever since I started out as a journalist in the 1990s, I’ve been aware of a cult of personality around him and understood what a formidable and ruthless operator he was. And as the English conservative mind has become ever more closed in its ideological rigidity and the Tories ever more desperate and divided over Brexit, it has long seemed inevitable to me that Johnson would end up as prime minister, so completely can he fool most of the people around him most of the time.
But Johnson is no fool. He may act the fool, as Fletcher wrote, but he knows how to get what he wants. He’s also more resilient and relentless than his enemies would have it: he just keeps on coming. Johnson charms and manipulates. And his great gift is that of laughter. Indeed, he crowns himself with laughter, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, who pronounced laughter holy and urged the “higher men” to laugh. But the joke is on us. Boris Johnson is prime minister. How did that happen? It’s a long, sad story.
Throughout his political career, Johnson has been grotesquely indulged by his media cheerleaders – and not just the Daily Telegraph, which prefers to pay rather than scrutinise him. The BBC has been especially culpable. It used to be standard for interviewers such as Jeremy Paxman (stock question: “Would you like to be prime minister?”) to allow Johnson to set the parameters of their encounters, which frequently resembled comfy Oxbridge old boys’ chats rather than the clash of antagonists they ought to have been.
It’s notable that, in his BBC interviews over many years, Johnson has been properly discomforted only by state school-educated Scots, Eddie Mair and (most recently) Andrew Neil, both of whom refused to be charmed or swayed by his ostentatious bluster.
But it’s too late now. Johnson has fulfilled his lifetime ambition by reaching 10 Downing Street. Like Trump, he believes in the myth of his own greatness. In spite of the chaos of his personal relationships, he has grabbed life’s glittering prizes, as has Trump.
Becoming prime minister is the least Johnson believes he deserves. Great men are masters of their own destinies. They create their own good fortune. They dare to act when lesser men hesitate. But Johnson is not as great as he would have us believe. He is a deluxe columnist with a sharp mind and quick wit – no more than this, and no less. His glibness, verbal dexterity, ruthlessness and amorality have taken him a long way. As far as he wants to go? For now, he can rest assured that he has made it, on his own terms, in his own way.
But one hopes he will not rest easily in Downing Street and that his premiership will be consumed in the furnace of its own contradictions. For time is out of joint: our poor kingdom is sick with civil blows. And to think that our main political parties should be led by Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn – at this time, at any time! The crisis is deep.
This article appears in the 24 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation