Here we are, landed with a lying embarrassment of a prime minister. JONATHAN FREEDLAND tries to explain how it happened and what happened now.
Many years ago, Max Hastings, historian, war correspondent and former editor of the Daily Telegraph, declared that the day his former employee, Boris Johnson, became prime minister of the United Kingdom would be the day Britain could no longer be considered a serious country. It was a good line, and rang especially true at a time, when Johnson was still best known as a comic turn, having served up winning performances as the hapless host of Have I Got News for You, squinting at the auto cue, apparently foxed by the technology, like a dowager trying to work out how to use the remote control.
Hastings stuck to that view, even after Johnson had served two terms as mayor of London and an admittedly short spell as foreign secretary. Last month Hastings wrote that the elevation of Johnson to No.10 “will signal Britain’s abandonment of any claim to be a serious country.” (Perhaps realising that his fear was about to be realised, the former Telegraph boss dropped the pledge he had made back in 2012, when he wrote that, “If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike”.)
For all the warnings of Hastings and others, Johnson is now installed behind that polished black door. We know what that says about him – about the persistence of his ambition and talent for winning votes – but what does it say about us? What does it say about Britain that Boris Johnson is now in charge? Above all, was Sir Max right: does Johnson’s success signify a national failure, confirmation that Britain is, indeed, no longer a serious country?
The question arises in part because his persona is that of a joker. The guy trussed up in a harness and stuck on the zipwire, gamely waving his Union Jack flags; the gagmeister of the weekly Telegraph column; the licensed jester delighting the geriatric faithful at the annual Conservative Party conference, the same people, incidentally, who this week made good on all those years of chuckles and chortles by choosing Johnson over Jeremy Hunt by a margin of two to one.
Even when he was doing things that were meant to be serious, Johnson usually presented them as comedy. After the riots that rocked London in the summer of 2011, he was out on the streets – eventually, after he was reluctantly dragged back from holiday – theatrically wielding a broom. He didn’t roll up his sleeves and start sweeping in an earnest display of volunteerism, as most politicians would. Instead he held the broom aloft, as if about to perform in a sketch of music hall slapstick. Absurdity runs through so much of his record, whether it’s the Boris Island proposal for an airport in the Thames estuary, reportedly inspired by the Tracy Island of the children’s TV classic, Thunderbirds; Routemaster buses that couldn’t open at the back; water cannon that couldn’t be used on the streets of London; a garden bridge that couldn’t grow.
And yet it’s not solely because of Johnson’s service as an unofficial branch of the light entertainment industry that his becoming prime minister suggests a collective unseriousness. It’s also the record of inconsistency and dishonesty that have marked his career from the start – and, crucially, the willingness of his colleagues and his party to shrug that record off. The serial deceits, a back catalogue going back decades, have been cited often in recent weeks, albeit to no apparent effect. Shall we count them? The firing from his first job at the Times for making up a quote; the repeated exaggerations and fictions about the supposed bureaucratic lunacies of the European Union published as truth when Johnson was Brussels correspondent of the Telegraph; the lying to his party leader over an affair, which saw him sacked from the Tory front bench; the affairs themselves; the opportunistic zigging and zagging over Europe, in which the only consistent thread was the quest for his own advancement; the £350 million on the side of the bus.
Or we might simply flick back through the 43-day leadership campaign that ended in victory this week. You could light on the serious, like his hanging out to dry of the British ambassador to Washington, not so much as raising a hand to defend Sir Kim Darroch when he was attacked by Donald Trump. You could light on the bizarre, such as his clearly false claim to be a maker of model buses from discarded wine crates. Or you could light on the alarming, such as his bluffer’s admission that while he had memorised one factoid about the GATT treaty – triumphantly hurling “Paragraph 5b” at Andrew Neil in a devastating interview – he had done no more than that, answering the question of whether he knew what was in Paragraph 5c with a quiet “No”. Just as revealing was his theatrical waving around of a kipper, claiming the poor smoked fish was a victim of pedantic EU regulation, when it turned out that the relevant rule had nothing to do with Brussels but was, in fact, stamped Made in Westminster.
To repeat, the significance here is not what any of this says about Johnson: namely, that he is lazy, under-prepared, vague on detail and still in the business of myth-making (or, as the Darroch episode showed, weak). No, the greater significance is that he got away with it – that his party and a largely sympathetic press were not bothered, preferring instead to form an honour guard, bow their heads and salute him towards No.10. It’s not what Johnson’s lies say about him that matters, but what our acceptance of his lies says about us.
The first thing the special licence perennially granted to Johnson – “That’s just Boris being Boris” – says is that class remains the central fact of British life. That’s obviously true when 20 prime ministers have now come from a single school, a fact that is downright astonishing. But it goes deeper than that. It’s that the Boris persona, the entire shtick, only works because of the British class system. The bumbling, the incompetence, the faltering speech as he appears to forget a key fact or name, the chaotic personal disorganisation, the tactlessness, the outright rudeness, even the hair: none of that would be acceptable in anyone who wasn’t posh. (Though the truly upper class insist Johnson is not, in fact, one of their own, that he’s more bohemian bourgeois than aristocratic.)
Try this experiment at home. Take a transcript of one of Johnson’s wobbling answers to Neil and read it to yourself in a Scouse accent. Or an Essex accent. Imagine what the reaction would be to a politician from Toxteth or Hayes talking the way Johnson talks. They would be dismissed as obviously unfit.
Now imagine a woman who had left her husband, refused to say how many children she had had or with how many men, and who now proposed to live in Downing Street with her much younger boyfriend. Do you think she would have even made it past the first round of Tory voting?
Or perform the exercise suggested by my Guardian colleague, Gary Younge, and imagine the Johnson CV, with its multiple sackings and failures, attached to a black woman. Do we think such a woman would have been allowed a second chance, let alone being handed the keys to the kingdom?
No. The truth is that we take it from ‘Boris’ because what would be considered unacceptable failings in anyone else are embraced as lovable eccentricity in a white bloke with a plummy accent. Hugh Grant made a living out of that English (and American) weakness for the hesitant, blundering upper class chap. Johnson’s exploitation of that weakness is cunning and deliberate. Witness Jeremy Vine’s fascinating account, on the Reaction website, of compering two corporate events, years apart, with Johnson booked as the after-dinner speaker each time. Johnson did the same act on both occasions: arriving late, hair a mess, no speech, forgetting the name of the host organisation, forgetting the purpose of the whole gathering. Every gesture, every word, was the same on the two evenings. It was a practised, studied performance, aimed with cold calculation at Britain’s – or perhaps that should be England’s – deeply-ingrained indulgence of a toff.
Closely related, of course, is the cult of the gifted amateur. A certain corner of the ruling class is raised to admire the dabbler and dilettante over the earnest and the expert. It may have changed now, but in Johnson’s day at any rate, an Eton and Oxford education encouraged fluency over knowledge painstakingly acquired, brio over work ethic. It’s why Johnson could recover from that early firing, bouncing back with a job at the Telegraph: because he had elan and panache, doubtless putting into the shade a dozen worker-bee reporters who steadily checked facts, took shorthand notes and wrote only what was accurate.
They would have been dismissed as dull plodders, while Johnson had star quality. It’s a British (or English) disease, why Andrew Greenway and James Ball were right to call their study of this country’s ruling elite “Bluffocracy”. Johnson is the epitome of an ethos that has characterised the top echelons of British society for decades, if not centuries. The highest aspiration is not knowledge, but the appearance of knowledge. What matters is not to be right so much as to be plausible.
Language is central here. Several months ago I ran into a Conservative MP, a Remainer, who surprised me by announcing that, when the time came, he would back Boris Johnson to replace Theresa May. Why on earth would you do that, I asked? He began talking about Winston Churchill. But, I said, interrupting, Johnson is to Churchill as an Elvis impersonator is to Elvis Presley. “No, no,” the MP insisted. “He can weaponise the English language.”
Among Johnson’s critics, opinion divides on the question of whether he is as good a writer as he thinks he is. Some believe he is repetitive, a busker who bangs out the same tunes day after day. Note how, when he wanted to put down the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg after she’d asked a searching question at a press conference last month, he quipped that, “Perhaps in that great minestrone of observations, there is one… crouton” of substance, a line greeted with delighted laughter.
For longtime Boris watchers, that brought back happy memories of 2011, when the then mayor said that he had searched for “the crouton of sense in a minestrone of nonsense” or, for even longer-time Boris watchers, memories of the 2010 general election campaign, when he asked “What crouton of substance did Clegg offer, in his opaque minestrone of waffle?”
I don’t think it can be denied that Johnson has the knack of a memorable phrase: it’s partly why his racist attack on women who wear the burqa or niqab stuck, because the image of “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” lodged in the memory. The same goes for his invocation of “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” or his description of Hillary Clinton as resembling “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”.
Few would be able to compile a Top 10 of memorable quotes by, say, Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, but Johnson does fairly bang them out. (Who can forget his complaint that money spent investigating historic sexual abuse had been “spaffed up the wall”?) In his victory speech on Tuesday, he suggested that “like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity”. Not a phrase May would ever have uttered.
Why, though, did that MP think this knack of Johnson’s qualified him to be the Conservative Party leader and indeed prime minister? Partly it’s because the archaisms, like the Latin fragments, nod to a traditional British view of what intelligence looks and sounds like. Back in 1990s Washington, they used to say that Newt Gingrich was a stupid person’s idea of a smart person, and there is some of that in the assumption that Johnson is a great mind.
But what Johnson’s linguistic gifts have unarguably achieved is this: they have made him a brand. He is a celebrity politician, recognised on the street even before he was London mayor, identifiable by just his first name, identifiable by just his silhouette. In this, he resembles Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian who is now the president of Ukraine, having played the president of Ukraine on a TV show – and, of course, Donald Trump.
When Max Hastings made his threat to move to Argentina, he wrote that, “We no longer look for dignity, gravitas, decency or seriousness of purpose in our leaders in any field. We demand only stardust, a jolly turn in front of Simon Cowell or on Strictly Come Dancing”. Referring to Johnson, he added that: “Only in the star-crazed, frivolous Britain of the 21st century could such a man have risen so high, and he is utterly unfit to go higher still.”
Needless to say, there are other explanations for Johnson’s victory, starting with Brexit – and the appetite, among Tory members at any rate, for the hardest, ‘cleanest’ Brexit possible. It also seems clear that, in this era of post-truth, there is a new tolerance of dishonesty, so long as that dishonesty comes from your own side. Think of it as a smirking insouciance toward the facts, so long as the lie aims its fire in roughly the right direction and is told by someone you like.
But, above all, what Johnson’s success points to is a society that wants to be cheered up. Jeremy Hunt suffered because he was, as one commentator shrewdly put it, the dad at a children’s party handing out carrot sticks when all the kids wanted cake.
Back in the early 1980s, a US scholar by the name of Neil Postman wrote an arresting book that argued that the world then taking shape resembled not George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the grave threat to human freedom was the over-mighty state, but Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where human liberty was threatened most by an addiction to entertainment. All other values were fast becoming secondary to the pursuit of diversion. The book was called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
Johnson is a dishonest charlatan, a liar and a cheat, bent on leading this country to the calamity of a no-deal Brexit if that’s what it takes. But he is amusing and so we have elevated him to the highest office in the land. We might not be amusing ourselves to death. But we might just be amusing ourselves to disaster.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian. He is the author of To Kill the Truth, a novel published under the pseudonym Sam Bourne.