On Monday, BBC2 will run an almost hagiographical portrait of Boris Johnson. To say that it is just a puff piece is a little unfair. The reporter asks Johnson one or two hard questions, but only about his sex life, and a few interviewees make a few critical comments. But Boris Johnson: the Irresistible Rise remains a campaign biography: feeble as journalism, but interesting as PR.
Sensing his opportunity, Johnson grants the BBC full access. He allows his father, mother and formidable sister Rachel to put themselves and their archive of home movies at the producers’ disposal. A grateful BBC responds by avoiding the subject of Johnson’s political record. Johnson drops his broadest hint to date that he wants to be prime minister, and the BBC takes that proposition seriously.
And why shouldn’t it? Ever since the crash, the uneasy feeling has been growing that conventional politicians cannot cope. Eurozone leaders cling to the single currency as if it were a tribal fetish. Not even the descent of southern Europe into ruin can shake their faith. In Britain, Labour still talks as if every spending cut can be reversed. Conservatives still imagine they can slash taxes. It is as if they cannot quite believe that the bubble has gone, and will never return.
The leaders who will face up to our debts and make a decisive break with the past have yet to arrive. In a certain light, it is possible to imagine Johnson as one of them. Certainly, he could not be more different from his tired and bewildered contemporaries. He appears unspun. He seems plain-speaking. In truth, his spontaneity is manufactured. Johnson calculates his every word, just as he has calculated every step of his career. His quietly devastating biographer Sonia Purnell, whom the BBC fails to interview, says: “He never laughs. Real laughter involves losing control, and Boris never does that.”
For all the hard work he puts into appearing care-free, even his enemies admit that he is nothing like the professional, poll-watching politicians who have somehow survived the passing era of Clinton and Blair. Unlike them, he’s a hard man to hate. As soon as he opens his mouth, the audience starts smiling. I once wrote a disobliging piece about him in the conservative magazine Standpoint. A few days later, I was trudging up the high street in the rain, carrying the shopping from Tesco – such is glamour of the Observer journalist’s life. A dishevelled lunatic on a bike roared out a cry of incoherent rage, swerved and crashed into me. “Cohen, you bastard, you total, total bastard, how could you slag me off, and in the Tory press – my press! – of all places.” I couldn’t help but like him. While establishment figures do not know how to deal with YouTube and e-democracy, Johnson is made for the modern world. He seems authentic, his rivals seem stiff. More potently, Johnson can exploit better than any other politician that deep belief in the national culture that the commonsensical amateur is more reliable than the “so-called expert”, to use that characteristically English phrase.
In the best moment in the documentary, Ian Hislop says Johnson is “our Berlusconi”. The comparison is apt. Johnson is the only British Conservative to win a major election since April 1992. As the status quo falls apart across Europe, people will look for alternatives. Why shouldn’t Johnson, a man used to electoral success but uncontaminated by the failures of the coalition, be Britain’s?
However, before you let him into Downing Street, do what the BBC will not do and consider his record. The harder you look the less there is to see. The documentary glosses over the incident that set the pattern for his career. He ran for the presidency of the Oxford Union in the mid-1980s as the right-wing candidate. He lost. To make matters worse, he lost to a state school boy called Neil Sherlock, who mocked the old Etonian’s sense of entitlement to great effect at the hustings.
The next year, he tried again and won, but he was no longer a Tory but an opponent of the extremism of Margaret Thatcher’s government. His metamorphosis amazed Sherlock. Most politicians have a mission, he said, a belief that brings them into public life and drives them forward. Johnson had no core beliefs and “without those passions, it’s not obvious why he would want to pursue a political career”.
Just so. When Johnson worked as the Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s, his admittedly brilliant – if not always accurate – attacks on the EU from the right inspired the founders of Ukip. Yet when he entered Parliament in 2001, Chris Cook, an aide to David Willetts, reported: “He was clearly not on the right wing, but actually quite europhile in Tory terms. He liked to gossip and bitch about the right-wingers he thought had screwed up the party.” To win in liberal-left London Johnson has supported an amnesty for illegal immigrants and warned that the coalition’s cuts to housing benefits will lead to a “Kosovo-style social cleansing” of London’s poor. Yet now he offers himself to the Tory right as the alternative to Cameron.
Most politicians in Westminster have basic objectives that keep them there, as Sherlock said. With Johnson, there is no there there. Beyond a broad belief in conservatism, and an unspoken but perceptible belief that Britain’s old ruling class should still rule the country, I cannot say what drives Johnson forward beyond his ambition.
All the new populists coming forward in Europe are tearing up conventions: sometimes for better, as with Syriza; sometimes for worse, as with Golden Dawn; and sometimes for better and worse, as with Beppo Grillo and his incoherent Five Star Movement. To say that a populist is not like other politicians is therefore to say next to nothing. What matters are the policies.
Is Johnson in favour of keeping Britain in the EU or taking it out? Does he want to let immigration rip and spend more on housing benefits, or cut both? It all depends on who he is talking to, and what they want to hear. Johnson is far closer to the stand-up comedian, who advances his career by tailoring his material to suit his audience, than the leader with a programme for national renewal Britain needs.
I am sure he can act the part as he can act so many other parts. But for how long would he be able to maintain the pretence?
Boris. Brilliant on the outside. Nothing inside – The Guardian
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