The empty theatre of Boris Johnson

British prime minister Boris Johnson during a visit to HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in Portsmouth,  May 21, 2021

Boris Johnson during a visit to HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in Portsmouth, May 21, 2021 - Credit: Photo by LEON NEAL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Prime minister Boris Johnson is all about theatre - and so is his revived Carrier Strike Group

There’s something curiously out-of-focus about the Prime Minister, isn’t there? I mean, I’ve been up close and pretty personal with him on a number of occasions, and I still can’t help seeing him with a sort of fuzzy nimbus surrounding his roly-poly outline – as if he were one of those newborn babies covered with a lot of vernix. It’s widely bruited about that his dishabille is a deliberate affectation – like Harold Wilson’s pipe-smoking. In private the Labour premier and soi-disant ‘socialist’ smoked Havanas – but can we really believe that left to his own devices Johnson’s coif becomes immaculate and his clothing sharp? Of course, Tony Blair was beautifully groomed, but it didn’t stop him trashing his entire record by getting involved in a quixotic and criminal foreign jaunt. 

A fortnight ago Johnson appeared on the bridge of the new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, looking curiously presidential in zipped-up navy-blue windcheater, complete with a round patch featuring the symbol of the new Carrier Strike Group, beneath which was the legend – embroidered in gold thread – ‘PRIME MINISTER’. This isn’t the first time he’s donned a jacket with his job description written on it – he was presented with a Royal Navy foul weather jacket similarly blazoned when he visited a submarine base in 2019. But this was no mere walkabout – and arguably, his attempt at a show of martial bearing, as opposed to his normal sprezzatura, suggests he may realise this deployment could be the apogee of his own power and vaccine-bestowed immunity to criticism. 

Of course, there’s a world of difference between diplomatic theatre and a bloody war costing thousands – if not millions – of lives, but then if Karl Marx got one thing right, it was the farcical nature of history’s go-round. There’s a sort of Children’s Crusade vibe to the Carrier Strike Group: a quixotic attempt to eclipse the rising power in the east with a wilfully picayune display. The Queen Elizabeth may be huge, but it has more American fighters onboard than British ones, while she’s accompanied by one of their destroyers, as well as a Dutch frigate, on her cruise through the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and on into the South China Sea.

If the objective of all this is to rattle sabres it’s patently ridiculous – and if it’s to increase Sino-British trade it seems equally absurd. Britain has long used its armed forces as a sales force for death metal, but it hardly seems credible that any other nation will want to pay the entry price – £3bn per carrier – required to strut and fret on the world stage in such a ridiculous fashion. The use of the carrier to bomb remaining Islamic State positions in former Iraq is simply a reminder of the tragedy before this farce, while the visits to China’s neighbours will do nothing whatsoever to impress Xi Jinping, whose behaviour towards the formerly British citizens of Hong Kong, the Uyghurs, and the Chinese people in general for that matter, shows that when it comes to peaceful trade quite as much as aggressive diplomacy, he holds all the trumps. Really, if the Johnson government wanted to fly the flag they’d have been better off loading the carrier’s holds with doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, then firing volleys of loaded hypodermics at the citizens of the medically-compromised nations the carrier cruises past. 

True, this would be somewhat analogous to the French gunboat the narrator of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ sees lobbing shells into the impenetrable African jungle – but then imperialism was ever thus: at once vicious and useless. One thing that won’t have escaped China’s ruler – whose mind is as bespoke as his suits – is that the Carrier Strike Group will be heading towards China on the day some brave souls refer to on Weibo and other Chinese social media as ‘the 35th of May’. (Until, that is, the police come round and kick their doors in.) This is the 22nd anniversary of the savage repression of Chinese pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square; and it’s often remarked on that while the Chinese have a strange disrespect for the physical evidence of the past, they retain very long memories indeed when it comes to affronts to the Heavenly (and latterly Materialist) Kingdom’s sense of national pride.

So, the sight of the Union Jack and a lot of jolly tars recalls to their minds such infamies as the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, and before that the Opium Wars – the two being interspersed with what the Chinese refer to as ‘the century of humiliation'. Compelling a country to become junkies in order to boost trade is a pretty shabby extension of diplomacy by other means – while the last time a British naval ship went blundering about in waters China regards as its own (HMS Albion in 2018), it sparked a major furore that ended in a lot of humble pie being consumed in the mess. I suppose the one clear advantage the prime minister has in this regard, is that his slob shtick makes crumbs a fashion accessory.

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