The four rules of Boris Johnson
PUBLISHED: 09:00 23 September 2017
MITCH BENN lays out how to understand the Brexiteering foreign secretary
First rule of Boris Johnson; it’s all about Boris Johnson.
Second rule of Boris Johnson; it’s ALL about Boris Johnson.
Boris Johnson may, on occasion, have taken actions which benefitted people besides himself (I’ll put my hand up right now and acknowledge that his tenure as mayor of London wasn’t the train wreck many of us anticipated) but this has only ever been incidental.
Since his emergence as a public figure in in the 1990s, every move he’s made has been for the purpose of furthering the ambitions, enhancing the prospects and burnishing the legend of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Nothing inherently dishonourable about that, of course, but one should bear in mind:
Third rule of Boris Johnson: It’s an act.
A few years ago, some of the late Frankie Howerd’s radio scripts turned up, as these things are wont to do, and many people were astonished to discover that Howerd’s schtick, famously peppered as it was with what sounded like ad libbed admonishments to his audience, was in fact written out verbatim.
Every “oof!”, every “‘ere no”, every “don’t you dare” and “oh please yourselves” was right there on the page. Howerd’s flustered, rambling persona was just that; a character he was portraying. He wasn’t floundering or extemporising, he knew exactly what he was doing at all times.
So it is with Boris. It’s not that his public persona is a total contrivance – you couldn’t invent something like that ex nihilo – but he’s been careful to preserve and give prominence to the bits which most convey the image of himself that he seeks to project.
The uncontrollable coif, the fruity accent and fogeyish, distracted demeanour, the donnish proliferation of Latin tags (indeed, had Boris Johnson not existed, it would have been necessary for Stephen Fry to have invented him); they all combine to evoke the sort of chap that Jeeves and Bertie might have had to help out of A Bit Of A Tight Spot rather than a man with prime ministerial ambitions.
Which is of course the idea... Do you think Boris didn’t plan on getting stranded on that zip wire? Or if not, do you think he minded one bit when it happened?
Fourth rule of Boris Johnson: He REALLY wants to be Winston Churchill.
Understandable. If you’re going to model yourself on an illustrious predecessor, you may as well aim high. I shouldn’t imagine many politicians of Boris’s generation spent their boyhood dreaming of one day being the new Alec Douglas-Home, much as Oasis didn’t spend their entire career trying and failing to sound like Herman’s Hermits.
Having written a “biography” of Churchill that was less about history than about how he felt about Winston (and, implicitly, how Winston might have felt about him), Boris Johnson has never been subtle in his attempts to position himself as the heir to The Whole Churchill Thing. And they have a lot in common; both from an oddly hybrid aristocratic/American background, both keen amateur historians, both staunch advocates of a closely-united Europe (of which more in a moment). But of course, to be Churchill, you can’t just smoothly ascend the political ladder. You need to be an outsider, (however temporary) outcast. You need the wilderness years...
Which leads us to the question of the hour; what the hell is Boris playing at?
Some are wondering why Boris, having been given the Foreign Office by May last year (probably for “keep your enemies closer” purposes), seems to be courting dismissal and banishment to the back benches. It could be that “on the back benches” is where he’d hoped to be by now.
It’s widely suspected that Boris’s extremely late conversion to the Brexit cause (having been a vocal advocate of European unity theretofore) was all about positioning himself as the champion of the Tory grassroots so that when (as expected) Remain squeaked it, he would be in pole position to make his pitch to the party faithful when Cameron stepped down, as promised, some time before the 2020 election (I know, it feels like a thousand years ago, doesn’t it?). Nobody can prove this, but the gobstruck Now What The Hell Do We Do expressions on the faces of both Boris and Michael Gove the next morning on discovering they’d actually “won” spoke volumes. This, then, could be Plan B for Boris.
But why, of all the possible hills to die on, is Boris choosing to resurrect that most transparent of all the transparent whoppers told before the referendum, the “£350 million for the NHS” bus nonsense?
Well, have you ever had a dream so wonderful, that on waking, you screwed up your eyes and desperately willed yourself to go back to sleep and return to it? That’s where the Brexiteers are right now.
They dreamed a dream of freedom and plenty, and have spent the last 15 months watching that dream being dismantled. They’d give anything to get back into that dream, to believe once again in the sunlit uplands of splendid Britannic isolation, and Boris knows this. That’s why he’s refloating the Big Bus Lie, even if he’s having to be so loose with his figures as to provoke two (so far) rebukes from the UK Statistics Authority.
This way, if he can persuade the PM to get rid of him, he can sit out the turmoil of Brexit on the back benches and, when the dust settles, present himself to the party, Churchill-style, as
The Man They Should Have Listened To All Along.
Well that’s what I think is going on, anyway. The only question is, why now?
Three words: Jacob Rees-Mogg. The man who is everything Boris pretends to be. He’s already stealing Boris’s headlines and airtime and edging past him in the (unfathomable to everyone but Tory voters) popularity stakes. Time for Boris to kick things up a gear.
Shame on us if we let him get away with it.