On Monday, Boris Johnson delivered a statement to parliament, and then followed it in the evening with an address to the nation.
It went much as you would expect. He informed MPs that the virus “doesn’t know it’s Christmas”. He told the nation that “we can hear the drumming hooves of the cavalry coming over the brow of the hill”. Then he declared that Christmas was the season to be “jolly careful”. As usual, he sounded as though he had just emerged from a 1950s boarding school.
The newspapers duly led on the “jolly careful” line. And of course, people do need to be careful. The problem wasn’t so much the words themselves as the tone.
The first problem is that the messaging is a strong distraction. If someone in authority is telling you bad news but deploying hyperbole and hackneyed jokes, a subtext forms in tandem with the text. The sombre language seems less important than the jocular, and viewers are invited to infer that “he isn’t really serious”.
“The "Boris" brand is expressly designed to earn laughter and adulation at after-dinner speeches and game shows. It is not honed to deliver vital public health messaging in a pandemic.”
Surely Johnson, the famously fun loving, self-constructed clown, couldn’t genuinely want people to be so careful? It evokes a gentle headmaster who tells you off but wants you to know he doesn’t really mean it.
The second problem is that it excludes people. Johnson’s way of speaking is rooted in a convention remote even from the experience of people with a similar background.
Most old Etonians and Oxford alumni do not speak like him or share his mannerisms. This is not a natural persona but one carefully constructed and curated. It is “Boris” as a brand: the lovable buffoon with the unkempt hair who somehow managed to ascend to the highest position in the land with a smile and knowing wink. This brand is expressly designed to earn laughter and adulation at after-dinner speeches and game shows. It is not honed to deliver vital public health messaging in a pandemic. That makes it uniquely dangerous. People can’t relate to it, so laugh it off, switch it off, or both.
Johnson has always been like this, and has always got away with it. Many people enjoy the fact that he is so “charming”, and so unlike other politicians. The problem is that this performer can only do one register.
His language during the virus has either been one of glorified war rhetoric or playing it for laughs, and both produce the same playful bombast. He has never managed – or even attempted – to speak to people like grown-ups, explaining things in precise, unvarnished language and engaging with them on a human level. It’s hard not to believe that Johnson’s priority is for people to like him and think he is clever – not to stop the pandemic.
Johnson, of course, is not the first prime minister to have a sense of humour, nor the first to make jokes. Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan both enjoyed wry wit, while Tony Blair frequently reduced the House of Commons to laughter. The point is that they knew when to deploy that humour. No other prime minister would have spoken like Johnson has during this pandemic. None would have boasted about shaking hands with coronavirus patients, or declared they were going to “get the virus done”, or, in a meeting, likened ventilator procurement to “Operation Last Gasp”.
“Like an embarrassing uncle at the Christmas table, Johnson has no sense of what is appropriate and when.”
The strange thing about Johnson is that he assumes himself to be the heir of Churchill – a great man with seemingly pre-ordained purpose – but actively contrives to speak in pastiche. Even in the most serious moments, it is almost as though he wants to sabotage himself. The self-consciously staccato “ers” that punctuate any sentence sound less like a grand statesman than a mechanic starting an old car.
Nobody is asking Johnson to become the doomster and gloomster he so despises. What people do need, however, is empathy and transparency – a leader who speaks at a register suited to the moment and in language they themselves use every day. Jacinda Ardern is an exemplar of this, using the language of team-work, shared purpose and optimism, while still delivering sober advice. Scotland has fared less well than New Zealand but Nicola Sturgeon, too, has enjoyed stellar approval ratings – because she explains policies clearly, constantly empathises with people’s sacrifices, and offers an optimism that is grounded in cautious hope, rather than short-term boosterism.
Like an embarrassing uncle at the Christmas table, Johnson has no sense of what is appropriate and when. That is not motivated by a lack of awareness but a profound narcissism, in my view. He needs to deploy his bombast at every occasion to remind us that he will do this his way and he doesn’t care. The problem is that the people he has been elected to serve do care – and over the coming months many more will die.
Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the pro-EU think tank British Influence, and a political writer and commentator.