On Boris Johnson
The political weather in Westminster has been made over the past two years by Boris Johnson, a man whose only apparent goal is to make the political weather. Senior Leave campaigners, such as Dominic Cummings, admit they would have lost the referendum had he not leapt on board. Johnson approaches public life as a game in which he commits sackable offences as a way of demonstrating his unsackability. The office of foreign secretary in this administration is treated as a leash to constrain someone who would otherwise cause more trouble to the prime minister elsewhere.
The Leavers don’t seem to have much clue about what is to happen afterwards. Curious, considering so many of them have spent their adult lives agitating for this moment. Their approach appears to be a version of Napoleon’s battle strategy: ‘On se dégage, et puis on voit.’ What exactly is Out supposed to entail? How do they picture Britain’s relationship with the EU, and with the rest of the world, after they’ve secured a vote for Exit on 23 June? … Johnson in particular changes his ideas once a fortnight.
These days, every politician is a laughing-stock, and the laughter which occasionally used to illuminate the dark corners of the political world with dazzling, unexpected shafts of hilarity has become an unthinking reflex on our part, a tired Pavlovian reaction to situations that are too difficult or too depressing to think about clearly. Johnson seems to know this: he seems to know that the laughter that surrounds him is a substitute for thought rather than its conduit, and that puts him at a wonderful advantage. If we are chuckling at him, we are not likely to be thinking too hard about his doggedly neoliberal and pro-City agenda, let alone doing anything to counter it. With a true genius for taking the temperature of a country that has never been closer to sinking ‘sniggering beneath the watery main’, Boris Johnson has become his own satirist.
Johnson’s reaction to the riots was interesting. The general trend of Conservatism since Thatcher has been to blame state control and personal moral weakness for the ills of society and to take advantage of the prescribed cure, privatisation, to diminish political responsibility when things go wrong. Johnson’s riot response has gone in the other direction: you might as well bring your powers up to the level where the things people are going to blame you for anyway really are your fault.
The rise in the social status of the bicycle has much to do with the sense of entitlement of public school, Oxbridge-educated politicians. Prefects and scholars in Victorian, post-imperialist institutions were the only ones privileged enough to cycle: one-handed, flop-haired, gossiping in dog Latin, between house and dining hall, classroom and chapel … Boris Johnson, like a character from the Beano, is airfixed to the saddle: fit for purpose, man of the people, blundering into scrapes, unsinkable, upbeat, in your face, a polar bear on a circus unicycle.
I know quite a few people who know him (we overlapped at university) and the general view is that he put on a buffoon mask to become a celebrity, and now he can’t take it off. He’s very ambitious, everyone agrees on that, and he deliberately sought to become famous as a way of furthering his political career. The idea was that celebrity is the currency of politics in the way that money once was: instead of becoming rich before going into politics, as Tories once did (the Heseltine route), the contemporary path to power is first to become famous. Electors are much more likely to vote for you if they know who you are. For someone who markets himself as a bit of a throwback, this is a very modern and very American idea. Johnson is the first British politician to give it a real try.