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When I Grow Up I Wanna Be Famous

December 23rd, 2019

When Boris Johnson’s autobiography eventually (inevitably) comes out it will be one of the most fascinating political books of its time. Some of it might even be true.

It will probably write about the 2019 election as being as much the Boris election as the Brexit election, a perspective that wouldn’t be entirely driven by pure egomania. Governing parties usually just sink over time. Rebounding upwards after almost a decade in office is rare. But was it born of skill, or timing?

The performances of Johnson and May are strikingly similar. As Paula Surridge predicted the 2019 election appears to have been mainly about holding on to the 2017 vote.

Despite this, I think Johnson did play an important role both in holding up the Conservative vote and holding down the Labour vote.

His high profile and maverick reputation gave him the chance to present the Conservatives as a break with the past in a way that the likes of Brown and May were never able to. Bolstered with a Brexit narrative that mixed optimism with action, he was able to reset the clock on Conservative government by making it a BORIS Conservative government. 

Lynton Crosby advocates the dead cat theory of political communication, using an unignorable event to force the conversation onto topics you prefer, and in the 2019 General Election that strategy was key.

Boris was the dead cat that bounced, or at least floated.

He sucked up huge amounts of attention and ground his message home through merciless repetition. In a long 2017 campaign Labour managed to force the conversation onto their terms and saw a late rise in their poll ratings. In 2019 Boris was inescapable, and Labour’s rise stalled.

He was undoubtedly helped by circumstance. Brexit gave him a defining issue, while Corbyn’s record unpopularity meant that despite Boris’ ratings of -20 he was 24 points ahead. Deservedly or not he was the centre of the campaign, takes the credit and has a strong majority at his whim.

So, with that in mind and to speculate as to what his whim will be, let me take one more pass at Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Bojo.

I had a lecturer who used this painting Wanderer above the sea of fog, to explain Whig History. The wanderer in a pose of studied elegance, surveying the mountains above the clouds. A great man ready to guide history as he sees fit (towards the apex of civilisation, a traditional British constitutional monarchy).

The only problem is that this lofty mountaintop perspective makes it impossible to see the people down below. 

Boris is not just steeped in this grand view of history, he wallows in it. In his biography of Churchill he draws an explicit line from Disraeli through Randolph Churchill to Winston.

‘The continuities are indeed very striking, and go way beyond an interest in social reform. Disraeli and the Churchills also have in common the journalism (and in Winston’s case, the novel), the love of show, the rhetorical flourishes, the sense of history, the imperialism, the monarchism, the slight air of camp and the inveterate opportunism’

Which couldn’t hint more at Johnson if it had a blond wig stuck on it and was dangled from a zipline. Including Randolph Churchill as a necessary predecessor does helpfully inject a strand of infamous infidelity into the heroic gene pool Johnson is dipping his toes in.

He is clearly concerned with protecting the political legacy of both men. He defends Churchill against charges of unprincipled shifting around. For Disraeli:

“it seems that Disraeli is in danger of some sort of eclipse. Douglas Hurd… …demanding to know what Disraeli actually achieved in comparison with ‘effective’ plodders like Peel.”

You can feel the derisive air quotes around ‘effective’, and the disdain for a plodder. Boris has little time for plodders, the slow but steady tortoises. He is a hare to his bones.

It’s an approach that’s served him well, he does have a Churchillian instinct to always head towards the action. Whenever he faced stagnation, he found a new race to shoulder his way into. He’s consistently been able to hold things together for the sprint of a campaign. During this election campaign you could feel him straining against his instincts and finding a way to say “Get Brexit Done” just one more time.

Two last book quotes for you (a hat tip to Marcus Walker for sharing these pages of a book I’m still plodding through).

”As Charles Masterson said ‘he [Churchill] desired in Britain a state of affairs where a benign upper class dispensed benefits to a bien pensant and grateful working class’. Which by the way is still the unspoken position of quite a few good-hearted metropolitan liberals today”.

”Churchill decides from very early on that he will create a political position that is somehow above left and right, embodying the best points of both sides and thereby incarnating the will of the nation. He has a kind of semi-ideology to go with it, – a leftish Toryism, imperialistic, romantic but on the side of the working man.”

Which is probably as close a summary of Johnsonism as we’re likely to get. An ideology of purposes rather than principles. Government not as a tool to spread justice through society but a tool to keep society as it just is, by placating the masses with just enough.  A divide not of left and right, but high and low.

As a journalist his writing is rich, and evocative, without ever being troubled by an ounce of reflection or weighed down by the dull restrictions of facts. Its eloquence being used to grind the world into lazy parody, steeped in the sense that no-one else is truly real. A worldview that sees other cultures as worthy of caricature but not consideration. Just grist for his rhetorical mill.

His record in office shows a common theme. From a garden bridge and Boris island, or a bridge to Ireland his eye is always for the grand project and headline plan.

When it comes to the detail beneath the bravado however, we find another common thread. From school plays through journalism, and public office there is an aversion to lowering himself to preparation and detail.

Little details are for little people, not great men.

Government is a grind. It’s a marathon of dragging a sled day after day, being stayed neither by snow nor rain nor cold nights in Stoke. In his first Queen’s speech Boris waxed lyrical about ten years into the future.  His view already re-elevating back to the distant clouds and mountaintops, past the tricky insignificances of 520 awkward Thursdays and the minor inconvenience of at least one election to fight.

He is riding high on his victory wave, processing next to Corbyn like a victorious general at a Roman triumph. But the hard choices will come soon. Boris has already celebrated his Brexit victory but it will have a lot of detailed toil before it is finished. Does he want to own it as a purely Conservative achievement or have Labour dip their fingers in the blood?

Wikipedia handily cites Roy Jenkins’ assessment of Lord Randolph Churchill, “Churchill had 11 months in office and was without rival in attracting so much attention and achieving so little”.

At least Johnson will have the chance for five years of attention.

Tomas Forsey

Tomas Forsey is a longstanding PBer who posts on PB as Corporeal and tweets as PBcorporeal