Awright, Boris! The meaning of Boris Johnson’s walkabout video
It’s hard not to think of Geri Halliwell in a Union Jack miniskirt as you watch the PM
Oh God, save us from UK prime ministers trying to be men or women of the people.
Harold Wilson did this better than most. Although he smoked cigars in private, the British Labour Party leader adopted a pipe and a Gannex raincoat for public appearances. Being from Yorkshire helped. Coming from a relatively modest background (although nowhere near so modest as that of his Conservative Party rival Edward Heath) helped even more, but the character you saw on screen was largely fictional. Dollop out the HP Sauce. Cut the top off the egg with a knife. Good old Harold.
Few since have managed that delusion so effectively. Heath didn’t try. Margaret Thatcher, although true to her Lincolnshire roots, was proud of her upward mobility. Tony Blair dropped Gs and carried an electric guitar into Downing Street. John Major, from a working-class background, allowed voters to take him as he was. That worked. Then it didn’t.
All of which brings us to the strange case of 12 Questions to Boris Johnson, the PM’s latest “casual” video. The film, which the Conservative Party optimistically bills as its leader’s “hilarious election advert”, is structured like one of those Vogue shorts in which some celebrity biffs back answers to an array of apparently random questions. Johnson is sufficiently self-aware to realise that he can’t entirely brush off his origins in Eton and Oxford.
He was never going to turn up in the 21st-century equivalent of Wilson’s mac – camouflaged onesie, perhaps – and argue the virtues of Stefflon Don or Skepta. Johnson’s implied argument is for a form of class slippage. He remains a Balliol College man, but he’s still at home to such everyday tastes as fast food, rock music and forced street slang.
It’s all here in a walkabout that, with its one-take camera and frequent bursts of skilled backwards manoeuvres, suggests nothing so much as Geri Halliwell’s passage through the Midland Grand Hotel in the video for Wannabe.
The Spice Girls are a useful reference point. Never mind the guff about Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed Marxism and the urgent need to “get Brexit done”. You can get that on Newsnight. This strange short film is there to connect Johnson to a low-level, unthreatening school of British patriotism. You know? Like Geri’s Union Jack miniskirt. Never mind the nostalgia for empire. Enjoy the chips and Marmite.
The video team has, of course, brought in a blokeish, working-class voice to ask the questions. In the 1950s, when all this started, plummy interviewers would begin by wondering whether the Prime Minister would prefer to discuss home or foreign affairs.
Unseen Geezer actually begins with: “Hey, Boris. You awright?” Even the faux-familiar Tony Blair would have baulked at that. It seems unlikely that Corbyn, whose trademark tone is sat-upon suburban civility, would enjoy this level of familiarity.
It remains an oddity that the prime minister most at home to politics as backslapping walkabout is a Conservative born to conspicuous privilege. It reminds us that the English are different and that they are never more different than when engaging with class.
In a popular documentary on Britpop, middle-class Damon Albarn took the interviewer to a pie-and-eel shop, while Noel Gallagher, working-class Manc, addressed the camera from a throne in his mansion. Only a moron would fail to twig that Johnson is also engaging in a bit of disingenuous class slippage, but hundreds of Oxonians play the same game.
He can make his own hot drink. He cooked oven chips last night. He positively begs for smart-arse tweets by praising The Clash (yes, @ToryRskum675, he knows the band once had a drummer called Tory Crimes) before swivelling towards the more aristocratic Rolling Stones.
The whole thing is transparently bogus and irresistibly laughable. That may be deliberate. Advertising wonks have long argued that the notorious 1980 Glade Shake n’ Vac commercial – “Do the Shake n’ Vac and put the freshness back!” – registered so strongly precisely because it annoyed the heck out of people.
Awright, Boris. Foreign or domestic?