On 19 November 2019, during the general election campaign, Boris Johnson appeared at a boxing ring in Wythenshawe, Manchester, to throw some punches for the cameras. Johnson’s boxing gloves were emblazoned with the Conservative campaign slogan “Get Brexit Done”, but the real message was in the medium: Johnson wants Britain to think he is a fighter, a man of action ready to rescue the nation from indecision.
He subsequently told an interviewer that in post- Brexit Britain, “You will hear one by one the pinging of the guy ropes as the Gulliver stands up again.”
The rise of the political strongman is nothing new, of course. Donald Trump’s popularity is based, in part, on his macho posturing. He rails against the “Do Nothing Democrats” and offers his own fighter fantasy, posting pictures on Twitter of Rocky Balboa, the fictional boxer, with his own head superimposed on to the muscle-bound body.
Trump is in good company. From India to Brazil – whether it is Narendra Modi boasting of having a “56-inch chest” or Jair Bolsonaro brandishing his military credentials – the dominant idiom of global politics is increasingly one of explicit readiness for combat and confrontation.
But Johnson’s macho performance represents a novel shift in British politics. The sociologist Will Davies has highlighted the “Berlusconification” of Britain, “where the divisions between politics, media and business lose all credibility”.
With Johnson’s emphatic election victory the idea of Berlusconification can be extended, because Britain has its own version of “Sua Emittenza”. Berlusconi’s nickname is a play on Sua Eminenza – “His Eminence” – and translates roughly as “His Transmittance”, in reference to the tycoon’s power over the Italian media.
Similar to Berlusconi, Johnson mixes media-savviness, misogyny, a libidinal bravado and an empty yet infectious optimism – promising to get things done and give voters a good time.
“I carry the sun in my pocket,” Berlusconi used to say. In 2005, Johnson joked that voting Tory would “increase the size of your wife’s breasts”. During the election campaign he also claimed that sex would sweep the nation after Brexit was delivered. “There was a [baby-boom] after the Olympics, as I prophesied in a speech in 2012, it was quite amazing,” Johnson said. “Cupid’s darts will fly once we get Brexit done. Romance will bloom across the whole nation.”
None of this is true – there was no baby-boom after the London Olympics – but, as with Trump and Berlusconi, Johnson’s politics is about projecting positivity and stoking prejudice.
The media has indulged this and enthusiasm for Johnson’s swagger has intensified among the right-wing commentariat. The Spectator and Quillette columnist Toby Young has described Johnson as “fizzing with vim and vinegar” and “a cross between Hugh Grant and a silverback gorilla”.
Even more ludicrous was Young’s comparison of Johnson – a man who once dangled helplessly from a zip line over Victoria Park in London – with Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch.
This grandstanding does not diminish the darker forces at play. Today, as evinced by Johnson and the international tough guy crew, political masculinity has become a substitute for substance itself – a metonym for strength and speed – and a manifestation of what Umberto Eco, writing in his 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism”, called “the cult of action for action’s sake”. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection,” Eco wrote. “Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
In contrast to the new machismo, Jeremy Corbyn, the defeated Labour leader, is cast as a sterile symbol of a neutered nation. For all the frenzy around his political radicalism and the accusations of anti-Semitism blighting his party, in the eyes of Corbyn’s staunchest critics, his gravest flaw was, in fact, his alleged pacifism. “Corbyn sticks to woolly mittens,” the Daily Mail reported on 13 November.
Johnson has good reason to retain his strongman approach. In April 2019, the Hansard Society’s annual audit of political engagement found that over half of the population believed that “Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules”. Now, they have one.
But the clearest insight into Johnson can be gleaned from his own metaphor for his Brexit deal: the oven-ready meal. Whereas Theresa May often spoke of how much she enjoyed cooking, Johnson presents himself as a different beast. “Whack it in the microwave, gas mark – I’m not very good at cooking – gas mark four,” he joked of his deal during the Conservative general election launch in Birmingham in November. No time for recipes, nor to cater for others, let’s get the job done.
Early advertising campaigns for microwaves were targeted at single men, and it still carries connotations of an independent, bachelor lifestyle – of someone unencumbered of family ties, with no need to think about others, free to lead their life as as they wish.
It could be a fitting vision for Brexit Britain. For once, Boris Johnson can lead by example.