Will he be pushed off the ice?
Loyalty may yet save Boris Johnson. Plenty of Tory backbenchers hope he’s still the charismatic winner of yesteryear; others fear their re-election prospects are doomed without him. Even the optimists and lickspittles might pause before claiming he’s earned their trust, however. In search of personal advantage, the prime minister has normalised duplicity, weakened checks and balances, and left a trail of personal and professional relationships dead in his wake. Has he no shame?
That’s a serious question. Opinion polls and media outlets regularly ask if Johnson’s honest, and the answer is so obvious that the parliamentary convention against calling him a liar is unravelling. The charge isn’t untruthfulness alone; millions of people doubt he’s even capable of remorse.
One sign of how far things have sunk is that Dominic Cummings occupies the moral high ground. Having recently read a fifteen-year-old article in Scientific American, he’s taken to calling the prime minister kunlangeta. This is a Yupik word for someone whose ‘mind knows what to do but he does not do it’: a kind of psychopath, who ‘repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and … takes sexual advantage of many women – someone who does not pay attention to reprimands and who is always being brought to the elders for punishment’. An anthropologist living among Inuit in the 1950s, curious to learn an irredeemable reprobate’s fate, was told he was traditionally ‘pushed off the ice when nobody else was looking’.
It would be defamatory to call Boris Johnson a psychopath without evidence – so, in the hope of gathering some, I consulted some shrinks of my acquaintance. Their expert opinions aren’t quotable, because of a professional obligation imported from the United States (the ‘Goldwater Rule’) which warns psychiatrists against assessing the mental state of public figures from afar. It’s impossible to exclude psychopathy – or narcissistic personality disorder, or reactive attachment disorder – but there’s no indisputable proof either way.
Johnson’s writing career suggests that he himself may have concerns that everything’s not right in his head. In his novel Seventy-Two Virgins, the shambolic protagonist (an adulterous MP with a cycling habit, and secrets to hide) ponders Socratic dialogues while wondering if his misbehaviour reflects a death wish or moral spinelessness. Johnson’s journalism is littered with articles that acknowledge political misconduct while absolving the perpetrators. Contemplating Jonathan Aitken’s calculated perjury in 1997, he blamed ‘the madness … of those whom the gods wish to destroy’. Illicit arms sales to Iraq by John Major’s government were yet another tragic mistake: ‘Even the most experienced Cabinet minister can be prone to the same mad self-delusion: that they can do the wrong thing and get away with it.’
Those clues matter. Johnson doesn’t do guilt – which implicitly involves a sensitivity to other people’s feelings – but he has a rudimentary understanding of right and wrong. A psychiatrist might call that insight, and though it doesn’t equip him with empathy, it does make him susceptible to shame – or at least humiliation. As the country awaits Sue Gray’s full report and a police decision on criminality at Downing Street, that’s almost worth looking forward to.
A couple of years ago, the prime minister’s sister wrote a book to explain how awkward it had been to oppose Brexit while her brother was bringing it about. Rake’s Progress: My Political Midlife Crisis concluded with an observation written just after his election victory of December 2019. ‘For him, a bad outcome is an abbreviated tenure in Downing Street,’ Rachel Johnson wrote. ‘A win is being hailed as the next Churchill and … a ten-year term.’
If Johnson were to be pushed off the ice, he would be the shortest-serving prime minister since Alec Douglas-Home, and his tenure would be dwarfed by that of David Cameron, the rival who still looms large in Johnson’s imagination. Even should he survive, the prospect of a discredited leader openly opposed by a faction within the Tory party would recall Neville Chamberlain rather than Churchill. A definitive political obituary will have to await the police decisions and post mortems to come, but there’s already be no better epitaph than Oscar Wilde’s lament for Little Nell. You’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.