The first time I drew Boris Johnson for the New Statesman was in 2014. He was mayor of London at the time but his ambition to be prime minister was obvious to all of us. As the cover of that week’s issue of the magazine put it, there was a growing “cult of Boris”. I drew him with his wide, flat face staring out at the viewer, holding a small silver crown above his head, as if poised to anoint himself king. Eight years later, the crown has fallen. Johnson’s influence on British politics will linger for some time, and he will no doubt find his way back into public life once more. But for now, hubris has punctured the ego. He is gone.
Observing British politics from my studio in Lisbon, Portugal, I’ve always wondered what people saw in Johnson, this exemplar of political buffoonery. I can’t complain that he dominated the headlines for so long, of course – I got to draw him for a living! Not that drawing him was always easy – the physical unruliness is as hard to capture as his psychological state of mind. The thuggish demeanour of his shoulders and neck seem to weigh heavily on the rest of his body. There’s a constant sadness in the eyes. The hair appears to be the sole element of his being that is truly free.
I’ve long suspected that Johnson, like Donald Trump, didn’t mind being caricatured. Any cartoon of him – no matter how derisive, vicious or vengeful – was proof both of his historic importance and perennial victimhood. Born into the ruling classes, his breed of politician never tires of declaring how much closer they are to the common person than members of the “elitist” mainstream media that persecute them.
That Johnson seemed to internalise and cultivate his own caricature – the unkempt classicist-quipster-strongman – is perhaps what made him such a formidable operator. He stood out from the grey technocrats, seemingly immune to ridicule. In an age of ritual artifice and digital outrage, he presented as a kind of unvarnished self, even if his persona (the deliberate tussling of the hair before media appearances) was pure gimmick. How do you mock the unmockable? It is a challenge we caricaturists gladly take on.
Some think that the relevance of caricature is in decline. But drawn comment is essential because it represents a kind of militant doubt against the certainties of our political masters. There were few more satisfying targets than the soon-to-be former Prime Minister.
Since 2014, I’ve drawn 22 Johnson covers for the New Statesman (a number that doesn’t include the hundreds of sketches that didn’t make the cut). My favourite one – “Perfect Storm” – depicts him staring at the reader, sullen and unmoved, through the pouring rain. Now, he is exiting the political stage. He is both a politician I would never vote for and the subject of some of the work I’m most proud of. If I ever meet him in person, I might feel the urge to shake his hand – a reflex of sportsmanship. On second thought, I might remove my hand at the last minute. Of all people, he is most likely to appreciate the gesture.
[See also: The hollowness of Boris Johnson – by John Gray]
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant