Fat chance: How Boris Johnson made his waistline a political issue

An Irishman’s Diary

I see that a British Labour MP suffered a public backlash last week after tweeting a comment about Boris Johnson's body shape.

Ben Bradshaw’s crime was considered worse by some because, in the picture he commented on, the prime minister was touring a hospital (to promote vaccine boosters) while not wearing a mask. This was the real issue, many thought.

So when Bradshaw tweeted “He’s also put on weight again”, he was accused of both fat-shaming and distracting from the more important point. Even some of Johnson’s critics rushed to defend the PM, reluctantly. “Don’t make me do that again,” pleaded one.

Normally, I would agree that a politician’s weight is irrelevant to his performance, but Johnson may be a legitimate exception. I’ll explain why shortly. First, I need to talk about me.

It’s not unusual these days for people – often of the female persuasion – to tell me I’m too skinny. I wouldn’t call this thin-shaming exactly but I do occasionally feel under pressure to ease off the running and to acquire a little of the comfortable upholstery that women in particular seem to appreciate in men.

I well realise that a few extra kilos might make me look marginally less miserable.

I was not always thin, however. Here, for example, is something I wrote elsewhere in these pages back in the early days of the Celtic Tiger, while lamenting that my waistline had turned into a metaphor for the Irish economy: “I first noticed this trend last year, when experiencing a record 7.5 per cent growth rate. But following another buoyant set of returns recently, it looks like growth could reach a staggering 9 per cent for 1998. And when you include the 5.5 per cent achieved in 1996, this amounts to a period of sustained expansion matched only by the economy’s.”

There was plenty more guff where that came from, but you get the gist. In any case, shortly afterwards and several years before Bertie Ahern’s government had the same idea, I embarked on an austerity programme, starting with a 100 per cent reduction in Bewley’s all-day breakfasts.

The reason I mention this now is that, three years ago, Johnson had a very similar idea for a column he wrote in the Spectator magazine.

Emboldened by the early success of a new diet and exercise regime that would soon help him win the Conservative leadership and keys to Number 10, he declared his weight problems a metaphor for the lean and hungry Britain that was struggling to emerge from the bloated all-day-buffet era of EU membership.

He started by fat-shaming himself, via an account of the climactic consultation with a French doctor who had "winced" through details of his old eating and drinking habits: "I suddenly felt ashamed. Here I was, a representative of the political class of what is now the fattest nation in Europe and a living embodiment of our state of moral akrasia."

He went on to delineate at length the enormous cost of Britain’s obesity crisis: “We are spending tens of billions of taxpayers’ money on the consequences of this national weakness of will.”

Then, loosening the belt of his metaphor another notch, he lectured: “We have every possible incentive to change, to get a grip [...] But we are sunk in inertia, a moral inertia, that exactly corresponds to the political inertia of the British ruling class.”

Johnson's use of his former waistline as a hostage is now somehow reminiscent of the scene in Blazing Saddles where the black sheriff distracts a lynch-mob by holding a gun to his own head and threatening to shoot. But his real targets then were Theresa May, the back-stop ("this odious sell-out"), and his weak-willed fellow politicians who would "abandon a thousand years of national self-rule" rather than risk a hard Brexit.

Fortunately, in girding its loins for the fight ahead, Britain could count on Boris girding his slimmed-down version first. “I looked at this nice but disapproving French doctor” he wrote at the start of the column’s big finish, “and I resolved, like Gandhi, to be the change I wanted to see”.

Anticipating Christmas 2018, he continued “I hope at that great global festivity to toast the moment […] when the British ruling class finally summons the willpower to do the necessary, to ditch this deal, to bin the backstop and to make the change that will launch us on a nimbler, lither and more dynamic future.”

Then, in resounding words that Bradshaw must have remembered too last week, he concluded: “If I can do it, so can we all.”