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11 June 2017

Boris Johnson’s wrestling match, the remarkable rise of En Marche! and what millennials do for fun

Plus Jeremy Corbyn talks trains, drains and his allotment.

By Helen Lewis

If there’s any competition at all for which Tory politician has had the worst election, it has to be a straight fight between Theresa May and Boris Johnson. The former’s stumbles have been well chronicled, topped by her signing off a manifesto with a landmine inside.

Johnson’s terrible campaign, on the other hand, has largely escaped comment. He was wheeled out to take a pop at Jeremy Corbyn, calling him a “mutton-headed mugwump”, but it felt like an old rocker wobbling back on stage to belt out his early hits because his divorce had cleaned him out. The streak of thuggishness hidden millimetres below his jovial bonhomie keeps peeking through, too.

There was an extraordinary moment after the BBC Question Time debate when he was on television with the Labour election co-ordinator, Andrew Gwynne, who threw an arm around his shoulders as they bickered over the election. Johnson responded with a kind of odd wrestling manoeuvre that sent Gwynne stumbling forward into the microphone stand. “I’m so sorry,” he smirked, with the smirk of someone who is used to getting away with bad behaviour because of his class, race and accent. (Try to imagine the reaction to, say, David Lammy or Len McCluskey acting like this.)

It reminded me of an earlier incident when he was photographed sneaking a look at Robert Peston’s list of questions before his appearance on the ITV show. He looked like the favourite son of a medieval baron who was confident the bastard son would get punished instead of him. He turns 53 this month. Surely the statute of limitations on treating him like a scamp must be over?

Drains and trains

If nothing else, Jeremy Corbyn showed during this campaign that snarling xenophobia isn’t the only way to capture anti-establishment sentiment. His standout performance was on the One Show sofa, where he just seemed . . . normal. A year after a referendum that was used to kick the political class, here was someone who liked trains, drains and his allotment. It was a useful reminder of why so many people fell for him in the first place.

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The Osborne legacy

The row over police cuts reminded me that they were part of another great George Osborne wheeze, offered at the time as evidence of his strategic brilliance. In 2015, police chiefs were already worried by the 14 per cent real-terms cut to funding they’d suffered since the start of the coalition, and started rumbling about the impossibility of further reductions. The then chancellor refused to quash speculation about a 10 per cent cut in funding. He lured Labour into ­attacking his plans, before announcing in the Autumn Statement – with the flourish of a stage magician – that they would not be cut at all. “There will be real-terms protection for police funding,” he said. “The police protect us, and we’re going to protect the police.” Cue headlines about poor old Labour stumbling into his dastardly trap.

There was only one teeny problem. A letter from Home Secretary Theresa May (remember her?) soon afterwards clarified that there would be a real-terms cut in central funding, with forces expected to rely on the council-tax precept to keep their budgets flat. By March 2016, Andrew Dilnot of the UK statistics authority had ruled that Osborne “could have done more to provide greater clarity about the data”. As with many of Osborne’s cunning plans, this “rabbit pulled out of the chancellor’s hat” turned out to have myxomatosis.

Escape artist 

In an attempt to keep hold of my sanity, I spent an hour last Saturday running around Greenwich, trying to find tiny plastic circles with codes on and occasionally sprinting away from guards. This was part of a game called Citydash, run by a company called Fire Hazard. Under the radar, this kind of live-action adventure is phenomenally popular across Europe. So far, I’ve played Escape Rooms – where you get an hour to figure out a bunch of clues to unlock a door – in Copenhagen, Seville and Oslo.

“At the beginning of 2013 there was just one escape room in Britain; today there are 598,” wrote Laurence Dodds of the Telegraph in December. “More than half of them have opened in the last year alone, and only 15 per cent of them are in London.” (Barack Obama did one in Hawaii last Christmas Eve.) Next month, I’m playing a live-action version of The Crystal Maze in north London, which has been pretty much booked solid since it opened 15 months ago.

The success of these games tells us several interesting things. First, for a generation brought up on point-and-click video games, this kind of group puzzle-solving comes naturally. Second, there are enough young people in Britain with decent disposable incomes to afford them: a single Crystal Maze ticket is £53.50 and most Escape Rooms are around £20 to £30. Finally, aren’t millennials wholesome? Not only did I enjoy myself much more than I would have done bellowing at people in a noisy pub, I even voluntarily did some exercise.

Quick Marche!

We might see the most astonishing political event of the year next week. Polls suggest that the French president Emmanuel Macron’s new party, En Marche!, could take half the 577 seats in the country’s legislative elections on 11 and 18 June. En Marche! was only founded on 6 June last year.

Escape artist II

I enjoyed Wonder Woman, despite some weightless CGI, and I like it even more after reading this remark by its director, Patty Jenkins: “Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing . . . We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.” I think that sums up how many on the left feel about politics, now, too: we can’t afford to be cynical about humans’ ability to change the world. We have to be sincere. The world is in crisis. 

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special