Boris Johnson, the prime minister? I’m sorry to say that I’m partly to blame
He artfully honed his buffoonish persona like a standup – and the brotherhood of his peers lapped it up
‘How can this be happening?” I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked this question in the past few weeks.
What people want to know – and I mean people from across the political spectrum – is how Boris Johnson, barring a serious upset, is about to become prime minister, first lord of the Treasury, and generally in charge of everything. How?
One can easily construct a narrative of exogenous forces that have brought the former foreign secretary to the threshold of No 10: the patronage of one-time Telegraph owner Conrad Black, the lobbying of those who argued against John Major’s initial instinct that Johnson should be kept off the Tory candidates’ list, David Cameron’s decision to hold the EU referendum that turbocharged his claim to the top job. But I don’t think such an account gets us to the heart of the matter; in fact, it is essentially dishonest.
To understand how Johnson and the rest of us have reached this point, one has to understand the stage upon which he has strutted. One has to grasp both cultural context and collective complicity. First, one must acknowledge, without qualification or excuse, the huge role that the media – and not just the right-wing press – has played in Johnson’s rise. And this is a very English, and mostly male, story.
Johnson is the spawn of two institutions – Eton and Oxford – that, at least in his day, taught men to assume that they were going to be in charge; of what scarcely mattered. Their principal bequest to their alumni was a potent brew of nonchalance, presumption and confidence. Of course, life has a way of draining a surfeit of such attributes from most people, but not all. Even in his darkest hour Johnson has never faltered in his belief that he is different, better and destined for greatness.
His fellow male journalists fell for this precisely because it was marketed with an artful buffoonery straight from the pages of PG Wodehouse. Especially in his early years, Johnson had the will to power of Pinochet and the social graces of Gussie Fink-Nottle.
He was clever without being a swot. He winged it, which drove his editors mad but inspired considerable envy in his peers. He was fun.
He activated the narcotic weakness within the English for eccentricity – especially potent when it is suspected that the eccentric in question may one day be the leader of the gang. All too often one heard the words “that’s just Boris being Boris”, as if his singular character conferred upon him a special kind of impunity. But it wasn’t his character that did that. It was his fellow hacks, who indulged him for year after year, through controversy after controversy – because he was part of what was still largely a brotherhood.
Johnson understands that the more scornful you appear of the traditional political process the more you appeal to your target voters
I’d love to exempt myself from this audit of blame, but I can’t – at least not entirely. Though I was never a member of Team Boris in the press corps – those who believed, once he became an MP, that he should rise to the very top – the two of us maintained a civil acquaintance as fellow members of the media-industrial complex for two decades.
When I succeeded him at the Spectator in 2006, he was impeccably helpful and supportive. I commissioned articles from him and ran them on the cover. Did this skew my judgment of him as a political creature? That’s for others to judge. Certainly, he can’t stand what I’m writing about him these days. But I can’t rule out the possibility that, in the past, I pulled my punches from time to time.
Thus indulged by his peers, Johnson was perfectly placed for a cultural shift of prodigious importance that he intuited very early: namely, the colonisation of politics by the entertainment industry. Let me be clear: I absolutely don’t mean the theatrical dimension of power, which is as old as the charismatic leadership rituals of prehistoric tribes.
No, I mean the ultramodern colonisation of politics by show business and its tropes. What Johnson understood was that in the digital age, voters were behaving more like an audience consuming entertainment than a civically engaged electorate. His shtick was no longer an aspect of his politics. It was his politics.
While the rest of Westminster operated within the structures of 20th-century political discourse, Johnson worked on his material like a standup preparing for a Netflix special. And we let him get away with it. Be absolutely candid: a fair few of you laughed along more than occasionally, didn’t you? Precisely because he was different, precisely because he didn’t seem like another starchy old Tory.
All of which converged neatly with the plummeting trust in institutions that has marked the first quarter of this century. Like Donald Trump, Johnson understands that the more scornful you appear of the traditional political process the more you appeal to your target voters. You signal to them: “I hate regular politics, and politicians, and journalists, as much as you do.”
During Andrew Neil’s brilliant recent forensic demolition of Johnson in a BBC interview, it was remarkable to see the massacred Johnson smirking away and gurning in irritation. He did the same in his ITV debate with Jeremy Hunt, narrowing his eyes and grimacing as if the whole business were a monstrous impertinence for a Man of Destiny.
The blame is not evenly distributed. If Johnson becomes prime minister it will say something truly terrible about the contemporary Conservative party. The media should hang its collective head in shame.
But I can’t help feeling that the culpability stretches much further afield: to all those who, over the years and perhaps against their better judgment, laughed along at this brutally ambitious politician. In the end, Gotham gets the hero it deserves. Welcome to Boris Johnson’s Gotham. – Guardian service
Matthew d’Ancona is a Guardian columnist