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Fintan O’Toole: Boris the loveable buffoon beats Johnson the charlatan

Key voters know the British PM is a liar but they choose to collude with the spectacle

Thanks to the marvellous Jennifer Arcuri, with whom he had a long dalliance, we now know that Boris Johnson's seduction techniques include the acting out of some lines from Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night. "He was hilarious," she told ITV, "because he would read it. 'Will you hoist sail sir? Here lies your way'." The weird thing is that this passage so neatly summarises Johnson's other attempted seduction – his wooing of traditional Labour voters.

What’s going in Shakespeare’s scene is that an imposter is trying to deliver a message full of ridiculous bombastic flourishes. Cesario, the would-be messenger, is a complete fake – he is actually a woman dressed up as a man. Olivia, to whom the seductive letter is to be delivered, reckons that the bravado and grandiloquence suggest that something fishy is going on and that the sentiments are “more like to be feigned”. Speaking for those in the English midlands and north who have had Johnson’s dubious charms visited upon them, she tells Cesario: “I heard you were saucy at my gates and allowed your approach rather to wonder at you than to hear you.” He must, she thinks, “have some hideous matter to deliver” if he wraps it up in such palaver.

They choose to wonder at Johnson rather than to hear him, to enjoy the show rather than consider what he is actually offering

This is the British election in a nutshell. Johnson – and the rather sinister forces behind him – do have some hideous matter to deliver. What they really have to offer is not just one of the most right-wing governments in modern British history. It is the self-harm of a hard Brexit in which, with Northern Ireland ditched, Britain goes for a minimal trade arrangement with the EU and throws itself at the mercy of Donald Trump. This message comes wrapped in Johnson's debating society orotundity, tied up with the staggeringly mendacious slogan, "Get Brexit Done".

Crucial battlegrounds

And what makes it all so surreal is that voters seem to know very well that it is all “more like to be feigned”. They know Johnson is a liar. But many of those in the crucial battlegrounds seem not to mind. For they choose to wonder at Johnson rather than to hear him, to enjoy the show rather than consider what he is actually offering.

In The English Constitution, a work of 1867 that is still regarded as holy writ, Walter Bagehot explained (approvingly) that the "English constitution in its palpable form is this – the mass of the people yield obedience to a select few". What they obey, though, is not raw power – it is a spectacle: "They defer to what we may call the theatrical show of society. A certain state passes before them; a certain pomp of great men; a certain spectacle of beautiful women; a wonderful scene of wealth and enjoyment is displayed, and they are coerced by it."

Johnson presents a 21st century postmodern version of this “theatrical show of society”. It has, in his Etonian accent and mannerisms and his patent salad dressing of classicisms, a vestige of the old “pomp of great men”. But the show is now openly farcical – a cartoon version of the live action display of 19th century imperial power. And the punters are not coerced by it. Crucially, they collude in it. They don’t believe it but they choose to believe in it.

The thing with an entertaining character is precisely that you don't have to believe him in order to believe in him

Tory strategy

If you look at the focus groups of those critical Labour leave voters at whom the Tory strategy is aimed, conducted for Channel 4 News and for The Guardian, you see something quite new: people saying things about Johnson that are simultaneously horribly insulting and entirely supportive. They don't trust him: "If he can lie to the Queen [over the prorogation of parliament] he can lie to anybody"; "He's not admitting how many kids he's got scattered everywhere". They know he's performing: "He's a good front man." But they like the show: "I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but he cheers me up." "He's like a puppy: you can't kick a puppy." "He reminds me of a bog brush: I like him!" The best expression of the contradictions is a man in Birmingham: "Boris Johnson is such a character. It's a buffoon to some extent, but it's a loveable buffoon. And he's straight-talking. You get an honest answer out of him."

The liar who gives you an honest answer; the likeable toilet brush; the loveable buffoon – this knowing perversity is contained in that single phrase: “such a character”. This is not stupidity. On the contrary, it is a highly complex attitude. There is here a conscious decision to split the prime minister in two: Johnson the charlatan, and “Boris” the “character”. The former lacks all the qualities once seemed necessary for government – trust, dignity, respect – and these voters know it. But they choose “Boris” instead, and with him the qualities of entertainment: likeability, colour, humour. The thing with an entertaining character is precisely that you don’t have to believe him in order to believe in him.

Thus the great pageant of British authority has been reduced to this end-of-the-pier show. The old working class watches the odd spectacle of a loveable buffoon both affecting and parodying the style of the old ruling class. Power makes a show of itself and the punters are amused.