Why the Commons crushes Boris Johnson, World Cup blues and our lost sparrows

Johnson’ bluster and declamatory style simply do not work in the chamber, where he shrinks just when he ought to enlarge and enrapture.

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I’ve been trying to understand why Boris Johnson’s resignation statement was such a failure. He rose to speak from what was described as the same position that Geoffrey Howe had occupied in the Commons as he delivered his devastating resignation speech in November 1990. This was not a coincidence. Though Johnson yearns to be prime minister, his speech was not intended to provoke a leadership contest, as Howe’s had, but it was intended to wound and undermine. Why wasn’t it more compelling? Why did it have so little effect? “Just watched Boris Johnson speech in parliament,” tweeted the Labour MP Jess Phillips. “He’s a crap public speaker and somehow parliament as a setting always crushes him. He has no presence at all.”

This is an astute observation. Johnson was a failure in the Commons in his previous incarnation as an MP, before he became mayor of London, and he has not been much better this time around. His bluster and declamatory style simply do not work in the chamber, where he shrinks just when he ought to enlarge and enrapture. According to Sam Leith, author of a book on rhetoric, the same was “often true of his hero Churchill”. And it’s not that Johnson is a bad speaker; it’s more that the Commons overwhelms him. I was present at a small party held at the Olympic Stadium on the eve of the London Games in 2012. Princess Anne was among the guests and the speakers were Nick Clegg, who was stiff and awkward, and Johnson, who had us laughing even as he cleared his throat.

Johnson is a huckster and a showman, seemingly without conscience or sense of loyalty. He has been grotesquely indulged by his media cheerleaders, including those at the BBC (typical question: “Oh, you do want to be prime minister, Boris, don’t you?”). At the same time, he has been more roundly abused – in the press, on social media – than any other contemporary politician, with the exception perhaps of Nigel Farage. Like Farage, Johnson has a capacity to take blows and keep coming back for more. But Farage actually believes in something. Johnson believes in nothing but his own ambition. “I am myself alone,” says Shakespeare’s Richard III. Richard dreams of being “impaled with a glorious crown”. Yet ultimate power does not bring him satisfaction or peace of mind. Something similar could be said of Johnson, for whom the pursuit of the premiership seems to be an end in itself. Will he get to wear the crown? Or will he be impaled on the spike of his own ambition? Does anyone even care?

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I still haven’t quite adjusted to the end of the World Cup and feel as if I’m mourning something. Perhaps it’s no more than the loss of a shared national experience, the opportunity it created for impromptu parties and gatherings and moments of ecstatic sociality. The intensity of the heatwave, England’s improbable run to the semi-finals, the humility, decency and integrity of Gareth Southgate and the likeability of his young squad, as well as the opportunity their campaign provided for a reconsideration of the English question: there was something special about this World Cup summer. Nick Robinson, the BBC presenter, captured the mood in a tweet the morning after the semi-final defeat to Croatia: “Anyone else finding it odd how some people are carrying on as if nothing much happened last night? Losing is like a bereavement – preposterous tho that may seem. No one died of course but you grieve for shattered dreams & the end of unrepeatable shared experiences.”

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This summer I’ve been watching the activities of a male blackbird who bosses our garden as his own and which he shares reluctantly with some pigeons. He’s out there when I wake up and is still scuttling across the parched lawn as darkness falls, mostly solitary, ever watchful. This bird is instantly recognisable because of its truncated tail – or perhaps it has no tail at all – and I can’t tell you how fond I’ve become of it. There’s no sign of a partner female but there must have been one because earlier in this broiling summer he raised and fed several fledglings, which occasionally still appear in the garden. Blackbirds do not live long, three to four years if they are lucky, and nearly half of all fledglings die before they reach breeding age. In recent days, a song thrush has started appearing in the garden but our short-tailed blackbird chases it away, marking out territory, showing who’s in charge.

When I was a child there was a blackbird in our garden, distinctive because of a white tail feather, who came back month after month (or was it year after year?) until one day he didn’t. Back then our garden in urban Essex was clamorous with the sound of so many different species of birds: assorted finches, blue, great and coal tits, thrushes, reed buntings, redwings, dunnocks, fieldfares, linnets, wrens, robins, pied wagtails, house martins… There were so many sparrows and starlings that I used to curse them. But today I never see sparrows and starlings. Where have they gone?

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For greater perspective on our absurd politics – Nicholas Soames has said that in his 35 years as an MP he has never “known such a truly unpleasant and deeply uncertain time in the House” – I’ve been reading Andrew Gimson’s book of elegant biographical portraits, Gimson’s Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to May. The author’s politics are coolly sceptical and he retains both a sense of humour and a sense of proportion, unusual in this age of outrage; one appreciates his wit and evident fondness for the grandeur and follies of political life. The essays can be enjoyed in one sitting but are ideally read in batches of four or five and non-chronologically: I saved the portraits of those I knew most about – Attlee, Thatcher, Blair, Gladstone, Disraeli, Peel – to last. But it was the portraits of those about whom I knew little, such as Andrew Bonar Law and the Earl of Rosebery, that have lingered in the memory.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 27 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special