I call it Woltz’s Law. If you love The Godfather, you’ll remember the Hollywood producer, Jack Woltz, yelling at the Corleone family consigliere Tom Hagen: “A man in my position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous!”
This rule applies without pity or exception to politicians. I was reminded of it last month when the Cabinet Office minister Alex Burghart appeared on the BBC’s Question Time. “The truth,” he said, “is that Rishi Sunak has been doing an incredibly good job in very, very difficult circumstances”. No, really.
The audience began to snigger and carried on doing so. “Hear me out,” he said. The show’s host, Fiona Bruce, asked him: “Why do you think people are laughing?” But the truth – that the prime minister and his government have become the object of popular ridicule, a national joke – was one that Burghart couldn’t admit to on air.
If this moment was what politicians call a “non-electoral milestone”, it had been a long time coming. Since he emerged as a frontline politician, Sunak’s talent for absurdity has grown ever more apparent.
From the start, with his expensive hoodies, range of “breads” in the family kitchen and £180 Bluetooth-enabled travel mug he has positively invited derision. Hiring the social media guru Cass Horowitz to curate his Instagram game, he welcomed us all into his gilded life – and ended up looking not hypermodern, but hilariously out of touch.
In March 2022, to publicise the fuel duty rate cuts in his spring statement, Sunak filled a Kia Rio at a Sainsbury’s in south-east London – and then bungled the contactless payment with his debit card, in the caricatured manner of a very wealthy man who has absolutely no concept of ordinary retail transactions.
In December of that year, he asked a homeless man at a shelter if he “worked in business” and would like to “get into” investment banking. The man answered, reasonably enough, that he would just “like to get through Christmas first”.
Sunak’s aides raged that the exchange had been taken out of context. But once a pattern of behaviour has been established – clueless rich guy struggling to understand the real world – voters lose interest in such excuses.
When, more recently, the PM revealed that he fasts for 36 hours every week, from 5pm on a Sunday afternoon until 5am on Tuesday morning, he apparently imagined that we would all swoon at his hardman discipline, his David Goggins-style dedication.
In practice, he showed yet again how laughably detached he is from the reality of the country he governs; advertising his luxury starvation ritual in the very week that the Commons heard a petition warning that “one in four UK households with children have experienced food insecurity, affecting an estimated four million children” and that “28% of young mums are skipping meals each day”. The juxtaposition made Sunak look like a tone-deaf buffoon.
This is absolutely not to say that politicians cannot turn laughter to their advantage. There is a world of difference between the leader who inadvertently becomes an object of derision and the trickster who maintains control over his absurdity and manipulates comedy as a form of political alchemy.
From his first race as a parliamentary candidate in 1997 to his eviction from No 10 in 2022, Boris Johnson capitalised on his image as (to use his own words) a “blithering idiot” and made it the engine of his connection with the public.
Think back to his famous immobilisation on a zipwire in 2012, dangling 20 feet in the air with a Union Jack in either hand. As the then prime minister David Cameron remarked: “If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zipwire it would be a disaster. For Boris, it’s an absolute triumph”.
In Argentina, Javier Milei, “El Loco”, has made brutal use of comedy to capture the presidency, with his crazy hair, cloned dogs and chainsaw. In the US, Donald Trump continues to outpace satirists with a long-running one-man show that has as its goal a return, against all logic and sense, to the most powerful job on earth.
As Jesse David Fox writes in Comedy Book: How Comedy Conquered Culture – and the Magic That Makes It Work (2023), we should have learned by now “how undeniable Trump is as a subject for political comedy, and how little it has impacted him”. Stand-up comics like Jim Jefferies, Dave Chappelle, Shane Gillis and Joe Rogan have all understood the former president better than conventional political commentators because they grasp that he is, first and foremost, an entertainer.
Though Trump’s plans are menacingly reminiscent of the fascism of the 1930s, his public persona is closer to an evil version of Groucho Marx’s Rufus T Firefly, dictator of Freedonia in Duck Soup (1933).
Sunak, in sharp contrast, is completely unaware of his own absurdity. He is hilarious in a way that is often closely aligned with oddness. During his first term as prime minister, Tony Blair realised that this was the best way to attack William Hague. In his Labour conference speech in 1999, he put it thus: “Under John Major, it was weak, weak, weak. Under William Hague, it’s weird, weird, weird”.
Hague’s baseball cap, his claim to have drunk 14 pints a day in his youth, his strange flirtations with skinhead conservatism: all chimed with Blair’s claim that the then Tory leader was far too odd to become prime minister. And Sunak is much weirder than the man whom he succeeded as MP for Richmond (Yorks) in 2015.
To take the most pernicious example: his fixation with the disastrous Rwanda policy is not only deeply immoral; it is also seriously bizarre.
As Volodymyr Zelensky, himself a former comedian, has said of Vladimir Putin: “Laughter is a weapon that is fatal to men of marble”. Yes, and to men of balsa like Sunak, too.
The flipside of his profound smugness is his undeniable ridiculousness. His has been a truly farcical government. And, as we know from Marx, the sequel to farce is tragedy.