What Is Boris Johnson Actually Good At?

He's the fun, lively jester, here to entertain us all while the house burns down – but how has he got to within inches of Downing Street? Academic Ben Worthy writes

What is it that Boris Johnson does well? It’s the burning question in British politics to which we can all think of at least 47 different insults, witticisms and quips. Please award yourself 10 points for your own individualised joke. The problem is, merriment aside, that this is deadly serious.

If Theresa May was your austere aunt, insistently sending you Boots give vouchers each Christmas despite the fact you couldn’t spend them on anything, then Boris is your childish uncle, arriving at your house with an air rifle and a Cypress Hill CD. Boris is the fun, lively jester, here to entertain us all while the house burns down because (cripes) he left the gas on. But, with him millimetres from Downing Street, what got him here? What is it he is good at?

One thing he does well is being Boris. This idea of political ‘personality’ is, of course, totally made up. ‘Boris Johnson’ is about as real as Ziggy Stardust or Madonna. The key to everything you need to know about Boris Johnson, and I mean everything, is that he ruffles his hair before he goes on camera. He’s confected an image as a ‘classics scholar’ and impresses everyone because he can quote Thucydides, or least knows who she is. Just by contrast, that is the same Thucydides which Harold Macmillan lay and read in the original Greek while lying wounded in a shell-hole in World War One.

Another thing he can do is make scenes. Boris Johnson walks around creating, as if by magic, media events. This was helped, very much, by very sympathetic coverage of his antics when he was Mayor. His mayoralty was, in a sense, one long set of photo opportunities. It fell part as foreign secretary when his jokes became simple insults.

Finally, he makes people laugh. Boris dad dancing with the Spice Girls? Boris hanging off a wire? One fruitful line of jolly japes for Boris is the Second World War. Like Ken before him, Boris is pretty obsessed with World War Two and ‘you know who’. Boris wrote a book on Churchill and has compared the EU to the Nazi empire and EU negotiators to Colditz guards. The headline ‘Boris stands by Hitler comments’ pretty much sums it up.

More recently, his ‘humour’ often consists of offending people and punching downwards, at Muslim women for example. This is what I like to call the Bill Grundy approach to politics, the man who famously encouraged the Sex Pistols to say ‘something controversial’ (reader, they did). For those on the right, this is a great way to turn a dodgy insult or racist comment into a ‘free speech issue’ or ‘saying the unsayable’. It was a trick perfected long ago by the man who Ken mentions every 10 seconds.

Actually, it might be better to say Boris made people laugh. Boris is much less a Heineken politician now and much more Brussel sprouts. Boris hanging off a wire is very different from Boris hanging with Steve ‘off to see the new Vichy party’ Bannon. What should worry Tory MPs is that, while some parts of the public adore him, this YouGov data shows that many dislike him-pretty intensely.

The difficulty for the Tories is that none of Johnson’s skills will help them get out of the big, black burgeoning Britain destroying hole that is Brexit. In fact, hair ruffling media events filled with gags about Hitler are likely to make things worse.

What should really worry Tory MPs is that what Boris seems to lack, above all, is judgement, especially at key moments. After the London riots in 2011 he refused to fly home, ran around with a borrowed broom, blamed poor schools and then bought some unusable German water cannon. He misjudged the Leave campaign (remember his face after the victory?) and then, straight after, misjudged his race to be PM in 2016. I’m always astonished that someone who starred in Richard III and was supposedly writing a biography of Shakespeare failed to foresee he’d be stabbed in the back by those closest to him as he reached for the crown. How many Shakespeare plays has he read?

In 2011, when Boris took part in a police drugs raid, complete with TV cameras and a stab vest, the suspect greeted his appearance with the words “what the X are you doing here”? We may well all shout that, collectively, when he walks into Downing Street.


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