It is a moot point whether successful prime ministers are gifted poor opposition or whether, through their own gifts, they create it. Boris Johnson certainly has the capacity to create apoplexy, shading into delirium, among critics who cannot fathom his appeal. Those critics have painted a ready gallery of Johnson grotesques. You can take your pick between Johnson the incompetent, Johnson the corrupt, Johnson the empty vessel, Johnson the clown, Johnson the stranger to the truth, and Johnson the little Trump.
With the Conservative Party several points in the lead in every opinion poll and set fair to win the Batley and Spen by-election, none of them has worked so far. At the same time, Keir Starmer’s ratings have fallen, after 14 months, to the same dark place as Jeremy Corbyn’s. Only Michael Foot has ever rated worse at the same point in the election cycle, though it does have to be noted that none of Starmer’s predecessors ever had to face a pandemic. Still, you have to play with the hand dealt and there is a lot for Starmer to do over the summer and into the resumption of politics in the autumn. The first task is to find a way of talking about Johnson that makes sense to all those people who are not already disposed to despise him.
The key to the Prime Minister is there between the lines of an excellent portrait by Tom McTague in the Atlantic. Johnson is a character actor who is playing a part. Crucially, this is not the same as saying he is an out-and-out fraud. There is a Philip Larkin poem about a visit to the English seaside in which the poet watches parents on the beach teaching their children “by a sort/of clowning”. That is what Johnson is doing. He is ruling by a sort of clowning, which is a much smarter schtick than being a clown.
Johnson is not treating politics as a branch of the entertainment industry, as it is often said. He is recognising that it is a branch of the entertainment industry, and always has been. Aristotle even has a word for it, which would appeal to the Prime Minister. His charm is “epideictic”, which means the skill of display. Johnson likes to be on display, and a public that finds him amusing is prepared to overlook his indiscretions. In a treatise on the sophists in the Roman empire, the Greek intellectual Philostratus observed “they are said to delight even listeners who could not understand what they were saying”. This is the force of character in leadership; it is a way of glossing over contradictions.
But only for a spell and only up to a point. There have been two prime ministers in recent times with the capacity to change the normal rules. Margaret Thatcher achieved it through redoubtable certainty. Tony Blair did it with Tiggerish-charm and suburban safety. Johnson is the third politician with the ability to cross the usual lines of allegiance but, unlike Thatcher and Blair before him, he doesn’t really embody the analysis he is offering to the country. The character and the story do not fit together easily.
Thatcher was the Iron Lady who would arrest decline. Blair was the comfortably modern figure who would update a fraying nation. Johnson does have a story, which has largely been written for him by John Bew, his foreign policy adviser. It is a story of alliances outside Europe and a global defence of democracy. It teaches that a country that is harmonious at home is stronger abroad, and that nations have a trajectory that is set by the “spirit of the times”. This rather nebulous concept is, in the tale that Johnson tells, a feeling that laissez-faire economics and deindustrialisation have cut too deep into cherished traditions. Time to take back control.
The trouble with this, and the key to opposing the Prime Minister, is that Johnson does not really believe it. Elsewhere in the McTague profile, Johnson styles himself as a free-trader and a man who wants Britain to be open to the world. In so far as he did anything when he was the mayor in the capital, that was the character that Johnson showed to London.
The story, in other words, will unfold. Johnson is offering implicit pledges to the people who find him an amusing companion and his bonhomie means he can buy himself time. But he cannot buy affection forever. The rules of politics do apply in the end, just as they applied to Thatcher and Blair when they lost control of the plots that they had begun. McTague says of the Prime Minister: “He believes that if you repeat that it is morning in Britain over and over again, the country will believe it.” And so they will, for a while. In time, though, the days lengthen and dark falls.
There is the operative phrase – in time. When Johnson trips it will be because he has let people down. Brexit will be a damp squib. Life chances in Hartlepool will not become level with life chances in Hampstead. Globalisation will not be turned back. The Northern Ireland protocol will not work. The decidedly English character actor will never play in Scotland. The money will run out when the bridges have been half built.
Political promises contain their own discipline. If the promise is grand, the disappointment is severe when it is not redeemed. Johnson will let everyone down in the end, in part because politics is a story of failure and in part because that is what he always does. The task of opposition is to prepare the public for the inevitable so voters punish him when it happens. But it will take time, and in the frantic realm of modern politics there is always only the quick and the dead.
This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?