The Terrible Message of Boris Johnson
shorter version published in www.politics.co.uk July 22, 2019
The advent of Boris Johnson to 10 Downing Street sends a terrible message to younger politicians of all parties. Why bother to be truthful, competent, diligent, or set an upstanding example in public or private life? None of these things are now part of the job specification for our highest political office.
No modern British politician has ever paraded an élite education so assiduously as Boris Johnson, or shown how little he learnt from it other than the ability to create intellectual graffiti with a spray gun of Latin and Greek. In this he reminds me of Mussolini, who liked to impress visitors with scraps of erudition (in case they missed them, he would say “Forgive my learned references”).
After Boris Johnson’s success, why think deeply about any subject when it is so much easier to skim the surface and strike poses? Why bother to learn facts and figures when it is so much easier to invent them? Long before Donald Trump Boris Johnson was a master of fake news. Long before Donald Trump Boris Johnson learnt to pander to racism and bigotry. Recently he had the nerve to dismiss a long history of offensive language as satirical. Wrong. Satirists mock their targets by laying them bare through their own language and image. That is not what Boris Johnson was doing when he talked about bumboys or piccaninnies or Muslim women in bin bags. He made the people who use that sort of language feel good about themselves, and that’s what he meant to do.
Why bother to take responsibility for your words and actions? Boris Johnson never did.
The British traditionally do not like clever, ambitious politicians, so Boris Johnson has successfully manufactured an image of being a lovable bumbler. It has been maintained meticulously: I suspect that his dishevelled suits are hand-rumpled by a Savile Row tailor. He presents himself as an exile from a P G Wodehouse novel. For years he has impersonated Bertie Wooster but in reality he is Sir Roderick Spode, although his immediate programme has the inebriated optimism of Gussie Fink-Nottle’s speech to Market Snodsbury Grammar School.
I will no doubt be accused of being a resentful Remoaner. Not so. I wrote in favour of Leave and voted for it. I do not believe that Boris Johnson deserves the trust of Leave voters, least of all the four million or so who normally vote Labour or for other left-of-centre parties. I have no belief that he will deliver a successful or even bearable Brexit.
Boris Johnson is extraordinarily lucky to have reached the Premiership with so little to offer to it.
He is lucky to be faced by Jeremy Corbyn, who offers the British people even less and has made his party a dismal haven for racism, rancour and extremism. The Conservatives might have been less willing to take a chance on him if they were faced by a plausible alternative Prime Minister.
But he is even luckier to be seeking ultimate power from the British people after thirty years which have given them very low expectations of their politicians and their wider ruling class.
They went through the Major government crashing out of the ERM and then beset by division and scandal (although poor Mr Major is starting to look good compared to what followed.) They went through the Iraq war and the banking collapses and bailouts. They saw dozens of MPs and peers cheat and chisel them over their expenses. Lately, of course, they have seen their politicians unwilling or unable to execute their referendum instruction to Leave the European Union.
In general, they have seen a wider and wider gap between official propaganda and the realities of what they themselves must do to earn a living or get decent housing, education, health and social care, transport and other essential services for themselves and their families.
In one government after another, they have had to endure too many ministers whose titles took longer to read than their achievements, whose names were unknown to them until the day they disappeared from office. They have seen too many ministers, senior officials and advisers treat their public service as a waiting room for the gravy train, selling the know-how and contacts they have gained at the taxpayers’ expense, often to the special interests they were meant to be regulating. In the private sector, they have seen too many senior executives award themselves Premiership money for League 2 performance.
The British people are losing their respect for previously cherished institutions. They have seen their armed forces diminished and weakened amid wild over-spending on defence contracts. They have seen service men and women sacrificed in futile missions by leaders too weak to stand up to politicians’ fantasies. Our underfunded and mismanaged court system has allowed Russian oligarchs to buy British justice while victims of crime have to wait for it long and often in vain.
They have seen major faith groups, including the Established Church, fail scandalously to tackle sexual abuse.
Above all, in both the public sector and the private sector, they have seen too many leaders who never take responsibility for error and failure, who protect and sustain each other, and glide regardless of performance into highly-paid positions and honours. They have seen too many institutions resist restitution or even an apology for victims of their failings, and punish whistleblowers for exposing them.
Against this background it is not surprising that Boris Johnson can gain a public following. “They’re all the same, they all look after themselves. Say what you like about him, he’s a character…”
There will be some macabre fascination in watching the Boris Johnson administration unfold.
First we will see how many timeserving Tory MPs will be rewarded with jobs for swallowing their principles and (much harder) their personal antipathy to him.
Sooner rather than later, we will see how far he and whatever stooge becomes his ambassador to Washington are prepared to stoop to Donald Trump and help his re-election campaign.
Sooner rather than later we will hear his first sub-Churchillian appeal for sacrifice from the British people. They might fail to empathise with a man who earned over £5000 an hour last year for knocking off speeches and articles, according to his entry on the Register of Members’ Interests (in which many entries were late). Some people might even laugh. Many more will be angry that he never warned them of the need for sacrifice before he became Prime Minister.
In Number 10 he will discover that he cannot ask Jeeves to get him out of the soup. Like all other Prime Ministers, he will have to get on top of really difficult problems himself, and take the blame for everything that goes wrong even when it is not his fault. In those circumstances, he will discover that the media and the British public are an implacable and terrifying Aunt Agatha.
Boris Johnson in Number 10 may make the Tory party and voters generally feel marvellous for a little while, but so do binge drinking and most recreational drugs. Sooner rather than later any Boris bounce will be followed by a massive Boris hangover and associated repentance.
It would be ironic indeed if Boris Johnson, chosen to deliver Brexit at any cost, induced the British people to beg for re-admission to the EU on any terms.
Richard Heller was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He attended the same Oxford college (Balliol) as Boris Johnson, but not at the same time.