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12 April 2016

Straight out of Wodehouse: could Boris Johnson be a Roderick Spode disguised as a Bertie Wooster?

Which is more terrifying in a potential prime minister: a posh airhead with no ambition, or a secretly well-read Machiavellian who disguises his aims behind buffoonery?    

By rajeev balasubramanyam

Boris Johnson is often described as Wodehousian. He’s usually paired with Bertie Wooster, though recently there have been some anxious comparisons with the Eurosceptic Roderick Spode. Only Max Hastings, former editor of the Telegraph, has associated him with Gussie Fink-Nottle, and no one, so far as I know, has compared him to Jeeves.

On the surface, Johnson appears to have most in common with Wooster. Both attended Eton and Oxford, and have a gift for witty repartee and simile: Wooster describes Spode as having “the sort of eye that can open an oyster at sixty paces”, while Johnson claims to have as much chance of becoming PM “as being reincarnated as an olive”. Both too are products and defenders of their class – contrary to popular belief Wooster’s objection to Spode is not political but aesthetic – and have taken advantage of their entitlement to indulge in antisocial drunkenness, Wooster at the fictional “Drones Club”, and Johnson at the very real Bullingdon.

Their core difference is that while Wooster is a confirmed idler, Johnson,  whose childhood ambition, according to his sister, was to be “world king”, appears more in the mould of Roderick Spode – one who “looks upon himself as a Man of Destiny” and seeks “to make himself a Dictator”. Spode is described by Wooster as looking “as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment”, which brings to mind the image of Johnson who broke his nose four times at Eton playing rugby and, only last year, shoulder-barged a ten year old to the ground during a street game in Tokyo.

Johnson was sacked from the front bench by Michael Howard for lying about an extra-marital affair, and has spoken derisively of Cameron in public, most recently accusing him of “clutching the skirts of Brussels”, but unlike Spode – who heads a fascist organisation called “Saviours of Britain” – Johnson commands a place within the political mainstream. Part of the reason why Johnson has a reputation as a maverick but not as a demagogue is that he uses humour to diffuse scandal and tension, a talent Roderick Spode – who lives in fear as being exposed as a designer of ladies’ underwear – lacks. When Ian Hislop confronted Johnson about his friendship with convicted fraudster Darius Guppy (a perfectly Wodehousian name) on Have I Got News For You, Johnson replied, “Ha ha ha, richly funny”, and it was – because he made it so.

Like Wooster, Johnson is forever in and out of “the soup”. In Wooster’s case, it is the shrewd and perspicacious Jeeves who fishes him out, for while Wooster and Spode are essentially “pukka sahibs who play the game and do not do the things that aren’t done”, Jeeves is Machiavellian. It is he who discovers Spode’s secret and suggests blackmail, quietly whispering the word “Eulalie” – the name of Spode’s lingerie company – in Wooster’s ear. But Jeeves’s “motto is Service”. He writes the lines for Wooster to perform. Johnson writes his own lines, is his own Jeeves, a well-read polyglot with a prodigious intellect who does his best to conceal this, admitting, “it is often useful to give the slight impression that you are deliberately pretending you don’t know what is going on”.

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Of all Wodehouse’s creations, Gussie Fink-Nottle appears to have the least in common with Johnson. “A sensitive plant, hardly fit for the rough and tumble of life”, Fink-Nottle is devoted to the study of newts, terrified of London, women, and speaking in public. It could be, however, that if Johnson has the stomach of a Spode, the mask of a Wooster, and the brains of a Jeeves, he may also have the delicate soul of a Gussie Fink-Nottle trapped somewhere inside. It is a theory confirmed by his mother who in a BBC documentary described a child raised by a series of “dotty nannies and housekeepers” while his parents moved around the world until she was hospitalised by a nervous breakdown and they later divorced. “I’ve often thought,” she remarked, “that his being ‘world king’ was a wish to make himself… somehow safe from the pains of life”.

Johnson’s sensitivity may, as Ken Livingstone commented, be “a breath-taking weakness in a politician”, but if he does become PM we can only hope that that the “sensitive plant” can somehow sprout once more. A nation led by Bertie Wooster would be a disaster, but one led by an unfeeling mastermind hiding his megalomania behind a Wooster-shaped mask would be far, far worse.