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Bojo is as Bojo does: how Boris Johnson killed the art of satire

Boris had a perfect grasp of the way to play the new-old game: develop a full-blown shtick-man of a caricature of yourself and use it to return all that’s smashed at you.

Me and Boris Johnson? Well, it’s a bit – and I stress, a bit – like Androcles and the lion. Picture us, squaring up to one another on the blood-soaked sand of the arena. There he is, the white-blond barbarian, mouthing the sickening platitudes of his nauseating credo; and there am I, wild of mane and acuminate of claw. “Kill him! Kill him!” the crowd bays, and really I would oblige, because nothing gets my gastronomic juices flowing better than the prospect of munching down on a shamelessly opportunistic, crony-capitalistic, ego-ballistic, posturing popinjay who appears wholly deluded about the inverse correlation that exists between his ambition and his ability. But I can’t, because many years ago Boris Johnson removed a thorn from the highly sensitive velvety pad of my paw, and a lion – even one who’s spent the balance of his majority penned up in the blood-soaked arena of the British mediasphere – never forgets.

A couple of years ago, reviewing a brace of books about Johnson for the London Review of Books, Jonathan Coe advanced a devastating analysis of a phenomenon best described as an enigma wrapped inside a whoopee cushion. Johnson, Coe contended, was the first truly self-satirising politician; he comes already spread with greasy opprobrium. That we all saw him applying the goo is besides the point, since he slips from our grasp every time we try to grab hold of him. But Coe’s analysis goes further than Johnson – he sees the phenomenon not as a condemnation of politics, but as a failure of satire. The whole tendency of postwar British satire, he argues, has been a retreat from the real responsibility of supplying an alternative, while firing volley after volley of arrows that, although they may well look beautiful in flight, often tickle their quarries rather than despatching them to the underworld, where Bob Crow reigns for ever over a Hades of inflexible rostering and collective bargaining.

Quite what satire-with-built-in-alternative-and-enlightened-policies would be like, Coe doesn’t venture, but I suspect not a lot of laughs. Have I Got News for You, the satire show on which Johnson and I were loose stablemates (although we never coincided on air), once generated a fair volume of laughs, but that was before the prototypical self-satirising politician ruined the game by being too good at it. Back in the days when media didn’t function in a continuous real-time feedback loop, the political class really was naive about television, seeing it as the acme of zeitgeisty populism. This gave us a blissful period – loosely from 1995 to 2005 – when show-business-for-ugly-people (politics) intersected with show business, and we saw George Galloway making like a pussycat licking cream from Rula Lenska’s cupped hands, and any number of less flamboyant tribunes queuing up to have the other panellists cut them a new, bespoke arsehole.

And then there was Boris, who had a perfect grasp of the way to play the new-old game: develop a full-blown shtick-man of a caricature of yourself and use it to return all that’s smashed at you – serial adultery, accessory to violence, Johann Hari-stylie journalistic legerdemain, shameless banker brown-nosing, property-bubble-inflating boosterism – with the same, self-deprecating drop volley. The viewers love it; hell, I love it. What these sorts of naughty Tories have going for them – and Johnson is in this respect an Alan Clark phenotype – is a robustly Augustinian view of the moral cosmos. “Look at me fall!” they hoot. “It’s hilarious!”

But Johnson hasn’t just perfected the slapstick of ethical evasion, he has gone further into the virtual realm, proving that his white-blond hair isn’t all he has in common with that ace Sixties scenester and sculptor of the human psyche, Andy Warhol. There’s a smattering of Guy Debord in Boris as well – he digs the fertility of late capitalism’s spectacular mode; he, too, relishes creating situations. Not, I hasten to add, that I suspect Johnson of having a secret theory-habit, any more than I’d accuse him of piety: what you see is emphatically what you get – but more so.

To return to the arena: he interviewed me for the Daily Telegraph during my small saison de tabloid enfer, back in 1996; and at a time when I, and those close to me, were under the cosh, his jovial unwillingness to judge felt like a barb being removed. Hence my unwillingness to go for the jugular – Johnson is as Johnson does, so there’s no great mystery there; and what we affect to find mysterious – his enduring popularity with the pesky electorate – is no less sublunary. This is what the union of satire and politics looks like: tousled, baby-faced (something he shares with his alumni Cameron and Osborne), while at root insufferably knowing.

Johnson may well fall crotch-first on to the European vaulting horse as he launches himself way too late at the side he thinks is winning – but if not then, some other time. It would be a shame, though, to be denied the perfect politico-satiric general election bout, with po-faced Jerry in the red corner and Johnson in the other, laughing all the way to No 10.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.