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24 February 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 5:03am

Boris Johnson’s “have cake, eat cake” strategy is yielding results, leaving Labour to pick up crumbs

Labour is learning that it is wrong to write off this oddly formidable Prime Minister. 

By Philip Collins

It is highly disconcerting, for those of us who don’t like him, that the political victor of the pandemic will be Boris Johnson. Though the political class regards the pandemic as a political event, the public disagrees. A one-way road to freedom, even if it is a little bumpy, will leave the government in a strong position. And that strength derives, almost entirely, from the oddly formidable, consistently underrated Prime Minister.

It is only when we acknowledge a politician’s virtues that their weaknesses come into full view. No one who becomes prime minister is entirely without virtues, yet most opposition starts out from that false and easy assumption. In the case of Johnson, he has the rare political quality of being elusive. He is simultaneously a definite character and yet hard to define. What does he really think? He seems somehow to be the very embodiment of having your cake and eating it.

In Swift’s farce Polite Conversation, Lady Answerall says: “She cannot eat her cake and have her cake.” In politics, Boris Answerall replies that she can. This remark is widely regarded as a clue to Johnson’s shiftiness, rather than the compliment that it is. Politics is full of dilemmas that have no obvious answers. How to reconcile the interests of the urban poor and the rural rich?

The political answer is that a good leader makes the question seem less important. Successful political leadership is the art, as the Danes say, of blowing while you have flour in your mouth. Many languages have a similar expression, of which the most vivid is the Tamil proverb about wanting to wear a moustache and drink porridge, too. It is a tribute to Johnson that you can imagine him saying that. In fact, you can also imagine him doing it.

Watch Johnson, when he was the shadow spokesman for higher education, on a Question Time panel in 2007. The programme contains an impassioned plea from Johnson for a referendum on Britain’s place in the European Union, but the most telling of his contributions to the debate is his first one. Salman Rushdie had just been awarded a knighthood and the panel was asked if this honour seemed appropriate. Shirley Williams gave a weaselly answer about the timing being wrong, for which she was sharply upbraided by a magisterial Christopher Hitchens.

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Then Johnson gave an unedifying master class in manipulation. He opened by posing as a philistine, enlisting the audience in his claim that, based on literary merit, Dick Francis or George MacDonald Fraser would make better knights. Having brought the audience along with him, he then proceeded to draw the same conclusion as Hitchens (and with which Hitchens had silenced the crowd). It was cheap and it was a bit grubby. It was politics.

[see also: Voters across the world have rallied around their leaders – and Boris Johnson has benefited]

This capacity to gloss over contradictions enables Johnson to be so redoubtable. He was sacked from the front bench for lying; he collapsed in a heap when Michael Gove declared him unfit to lead and close observers asserted the Tory party would never trust him. Yet here he still is.

There is a Clive James poem about a Weeble toy that captures this quality: “An Aufstehpuppe is a stand-up guy./You knock him over, he gets up again:/Constantly smiling, never asking why/The world went sideways for a while back then.” Perhaps Johnson’s survival instinct is just vaulting ambition in another guise. Whatever its source, it is worth taking seriously. Among the political classes, he gets written off too quickly and too often.

But the electorate is slower to write him off. Johnson comes back because he is welcomed back. He reaches voters that no Tory since Margaret Thatcher has touched. Tony Blair expanded his range by appearing, like a member of the royal family, to be both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Johnson does it by floating on a zip-wire above politics. It might be a shtick, but rhetorical play is part of politics and Johnson’s is too sincere to be dismissed as fake.

There are signs, too, that the character known as Boris Johnson might be trying to expand his repertoire. His weakness was always his apparent lack of seriousness. It is one thing to like a joke but quite another to be one, and Johnson failed to use his apprenticeship as mayor of London to become more serious. High office, though, confers gravity on politicians, and it is working its magic even on a would-be clown.

The pandemic has forced Johnson to become sombre. As he presented his path out of lockdown to the nation on 22 February, the Prime Minister became a reasonable man charting a course between extremists. Optimism rooted in the facts – it’s the balance he should have been seeking all along.

Then there is something else, something more strategic, which makes him hard for Labour to oppose. Though nobody wants to put it starkly, Labour agrees with him. Johnson has adopted the ambitious slogan of “levelling up” because it contains the implied insult that the left wants to “level down”. The Labour response is always that this is not true: equality is, in point of fact, levelling up. And so it is hard to oppose your own idea, no matter how irritating it is that a Tory has stolen it.

This is the leader Labour faces. A character who is hard to characterise. A tough politician who makes people who will never meet him think they would enjoy his company. An intellectually erratic man who has landed on Labour’s square. Johnson will try levelling up and he will fail, but that verdict will take time to settle. In a profoundly impatient political culture, Keir Starmer must find ways to keep us happy while we wait. For a period now, Boris Johnson is going to swim without getting wet, as the Albanians say. 

[see also: Boris Johnson’s clever trick to get away with anything – even the Covid catastrophe]

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks