It’s one of those memes that’s wormed its way so far into my brain that I can no longer imagine it not existing. A bus, say, will get stuck under a low bridge, and someone will tweet a picture in a “lol, idiot” kind of a way. “Bus expert here,” someone else, who is not in fact a bus expert, will reply. “I know this LOOKS cute and heartwarming, but actually buses only do this when they’re VERY distressed.”
All of which is necessary to explain why half the internet responded to Boris Johnson’s 2020 interview with the Mail on Sunday – in which he, apropos of nothing, dropped to the floor and started doing press-ups – by pointing out that Prime Ministers only engage in such things when they’re VERY distressed.
This was one of those jokes which, if you understood it, let alone made it, was a sign you’d spent too many hours online and that it was time to find a less damaging activity, such as sniffing glue. But it did, I think, stumble upon an underlying truth. The need to prove one’s physical strength and virility to anyone, let alone the political editor of the Mail on Sunday, is not the mark of a man secure in his status or masculinity. It was reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s topless horse riding, or Benito Mussolini’s habit of randomly taking his shirt off in public like your granddad during a heatwave. Boris Johnson’s less than toned physique, and the fact he was less than three months out of the intensive care ward at the time, tell their own story, but even if they did not: happy, well-adjusted people do not do this.
There are, if you look for them, plenty of other signs that Boris Johnson is not a man who’s contented with his lot. The regular stories about how the Prime Minister is struggling to get by on his £157,000 salary, which “insiders” strangely seem to think will win him sympathy. The complaints about Downing Street’s lack of household staff. The reports of him hinting to dinners full of strangers about a lack of domestic bliss, and rumours he keeps bemoaning that governing is getting in the way of finishing his book on Shakespeare.
It’s blindingly obvious to anyone who has so much as glanced at British politics over the past 20 years that Boris Johnson always wanted to become Prime Minister: he spent eight years as mayor of London, a job that clearly bored him, to increase his chances, then committed to tearing up four decades’ worth of UK diplomatic and economic policy in a national newspaper ostensibly because it would move him one step closer to his goal. It’s not so much that Boris Johnson had ambition – he was ambition. Nothing else seemed to matter; nothing else seemed real.
But wanting to become Prime Minister is not the same as wanting to be Prime Minister, and it’s increasingly apparent that Johnson doesn’t want to do the job at all. It costs him valuable newspaper columns. It forces him to live in a cramped house filled with underlings in suits. It prevents him from doing the work he wants to do. It means people expect him to care.
Wouldn’t it be kinder not to put him through all this? Just as it’s not fair to keep animals shut up in zoos, is it really humane to keep politicians stuck in posts that are causing them pain? Vladimir Putin, so one theory runs, is as trapped as anybody else in Russia: he can’t simply retire and write a book without the consequences of all his actions coming back to haunt him. But Boris Johnson faces no such barrier. He can toddle off into the sunset and live the life he so clearly yearns for once again, with all of the attention but none of the responsibility.
Johnson’s rise was facilitated by the backing of a significant number of – let’s be honest – client journalists. He may not have had many friends in politics, but he had plenty of them in the media. If those journalists ever really were his friends, though, they should ask themselves whose interests are really served by letting this painful situation continue. If they really care for the PM, they’d help him to escape the hell of Downing Street – to stop suggesting he go on and on and instead start helping to draw up an exit strategy. Why make him go on like this? He’s clearly VERY distressed.