Boris Johnson has now for two years held the job he craved. He has already been through two missions – Brexit and combating Covid-19 – and has just signalled, albeit in an empty speech about equality, a third. He has turned Dominic Cummings, his former chief adviser, into a constant and apoplectic critic, he has confirmed the view of all those allies who knew him that he has no capacity for government and he has infuriated his political enemies beyond the scope of their reason. Yet, two years and counting, he leads a Conservative government that enjoys a clear lead in all the opinion polls.
The question arises of how to assess such a strange political character. He has had a first two years like nobody else, in part because he went directly from the back benches to Downing Street without any intervening term as leader of the opposition. Of the premiers of the past half-century, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron all served an apprenticeship and it seems as though that did them all good.
Those leaders who inherited the top job – James Callaghan, John Major, Gordon Brown and Theresa May – without having been leader of the opposition all struggled, quickly. The two-year report card on each one of them would have been brutal. Indeed, Callaghan, Brown and May didn’t last much longer than those two years, and every week that Major staggered on served to corrode his popularity. Johnson looks like a completely separate case – the one prime minister with the staying power of the Wilson, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron group who took the job in the circumstances of Callaghan, Major, Brown and May. He has something special.
His opponents like to draw up the charge sheet and it does indeed burst with proofs of guilt. Johnson threw Northern Ireland into the sea for the sake of a Brexit deal. Thousands have died needlessly because of his failure to lock down in the early weeks of the pandemic and his reluctance to close the borders. He disregards the will of parliament and treats international treaties with arrogant disdain. He has attacked, in turn, the judiciary, the BBC and the civil service. He cut foreign aid and encourages the uglier side of patriotism. He presides over a cabinet of loyal fools. He is a habitual liar who tries to claim credit for sacking ministers who have resigned. He dares not submit himself to an interview and avoids scrutiny because his government is, to all intents and purposes, corrupt. And, into the bargain, he is a lazy chancer who does not think the rules apply to him and who believes in nothing except his own sense of destiny.
[see also: Leader: Two years of Boris Johnson]
There is a lot of truth in this list, sadly. Johnson is not a man who adds to the lustre of public life. Yet in a democracy, no politician can really take the public for fools. The public is not a jury of idiots. Neither is it true that where once upon a time integrity mattered, now, in the arena of fake news, anything is permitted.
The charges against Johnson are significant and, if they are not sticking, we have to seek the reason for this not in the stupidity of the voters and not in the decline of the times, but in Johnson himself. He is a performer in a mask of his own devising and it is for that entertainment value that he is, for the moment, being judged.
The best analytical framework for the paradox of a failing prime minister who retains popularity is to be found in the classical world that Johnson claims to inhabit. In Rhetoric, his primer on statecraft, Aristotle writes that there are three sources of persuasive political appeal: reason, emotion and character. The great political story-tellers balance the three in a perfect equilibrium, in which the logic of an argument is enhanced by an emotional connection and by the credibility and gravity of the speaker. Most successful politicians have some command of the three persuasive virtues, but in differing degrees. Johnson’s critics are telling us, loudly, that the Prime Minister is an unreasonable character. His logic is awry, they say. And that is true, only not true enough. Boris Johnson is playing the part of Boris Johnson. His appeal is to what Aristotle called ethos: in colloquial language, he is quite a character.
The appeal of character does not pall quickly. Character slows as it slides down the helter-skelter of modern politics. So maybe the critics of Johnson need a virtue most of them evidently lack, which is patience. In the digital forum of social media, verdicts are arrived at in an instant. Yet more than two-thirds of the population are not on Twitter. They are living a slower and less raucous life, and it will take longer for them to form the judgement that Johnson has let them down.
But they will form it, eventually. Aristotle has a sting in the analysis, which is the idea of kairos – referring to the critical or opportune moment. In archery, where the word comes from, kairos denotes the moment that an arrow is fired with enough force to penetrate a target. The critics are firing constantly but not yet hitting. In time they will, and when the Johnson shtick starts to fail some of his current moves will be cited against him.
When the public tires of the Prime Minister, his assumption that rules are for lesser mortals will matter. The unredeemable promise that poorer parts of Britain will one day enjoy the prosperity of the south-east will look like the frivolous claim of a man who, for all the fun, turned out not to be much good. Characters do come a cropper, but the story has to unfold. Boris Johnson thinks he can carry on as he pleases indefinitely, but time will tell.
This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century