Out of his depth, out of ideas
Published by The i paper (21st September, 2020)
When I was a child I wanted to be prime minister. First, I planned to be an actor, until a couple of school productions curbed such foolish concepts, then I decided a vet might be a fine career after reading books by James Herriot and Gerald Durrell. Next my lifelong interest in politics flared up. But any infantile ambitions on Downing Street dissolved one evening as a student when a 45-minute debate on whether to have hard or soft toilet paper in the Aberdeen student council offices made me see this might be less fun than imagined. It ended with compromise, incidentally: hard in the gents and soft in the ladies.
Boris Johnson had bigger ambitions as a boy. His sister has revealed he planned to become world king; clearly he was not interested in any constraints on his supreme powers. Although he scaled down his objective to merely leading his own nation, he never grew out of his childhood aim. His life has been one long thrust for the top, his ruthless desire to rule over us hidden behind that carefully crafted exterior of an amiable, classical-quoting toff that helped him to overcome setbacks and scandals that would have felled more traditional players in both journalism and politics.
He intended that his life story would bear comparison with Sir Winston Churchill, a man also mocked by lesser mortals for flip-flops, personal failings and foibles but who turned out to be the perfect prime minister for a nation in peril. Instead, Johnson looks a sadder and more diminished figure by the day as he sits in Downing Street so pitifully out of his depth, a shallow and insecure man devoid of leadership skills and seemingly defeated by the scale of challenge confronting him as pandemic and economic trauma sweeps the planet.
Now he has discovered the hideous cruelty of politics as some friends and fellow travellers who enabled his populist takeover of the Tory party and our country turn on him, having belatedly seen his ineptitude exposed so sharply by this terrifying crisis. Even the Spectator, the magazine Johnson once edited (in name at least), warns in its latest edition that the “whole government seems adrift, defined by its avoidable mistakes: Covid policy, Brexit, party discipline”, blaming “a conspicuous and baffling lack of leadership”. Toby Young, its pugnacious columnist, wrote a column headlined: “I admit it: I was wrong to back Boris”.
Tory MPs are becoming increasingly vocal over their concerns with a bumbling prime minister at helm of a government that looks so confused by the pandemic, one minute urging people back into bars and offices, the next warning of tougher restrictions and the dangers of a second wave. Savage briefings claim Johnson has “misery etched on his face” as he struggles with personal, financial and health concerns. Sympathetic allies fail to notice the irony that the man who claimed to speak for the masses is supposedly struggling to get by on a salary almost ten times higher than citizens on minimum wage. I doubt many carers are crying over his financial woes on almost £160,000 a year.
The mood in Downing Street is so dismal they are trying to rebrand Johnson as a man desperate to unleash a green revolution but frustrated by having to deal with Brexit and Covid. One article by a sympathetic columnist last week claimed the prime minister’s “greenery is genetic” and that he has always cared deeply about environmental issues. Yet, in his own columns, Johnson claimed the idea humans are responsible for global warming was “without foundation” and praised Piers Corbyn, the weather forecaster and prominent denier. Over his time in politics he has routinely voted against measures to slow climate change, while his actions as both London mayor and foreign secretary caused concerns on this issue.
Briefing out such nonsense shows again the inconsistencies that make Johnson so unfit to be prime minister – along with his poor performances in those two previous posts. I accept that pragmatism is a crucial part of politics, as shown in their very different ways by Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, two of the most important leaders over my lifetime.
But compromise and changes of direction must be rooted in some core sense of values, not based on the narcissistic assumption that proclaimed beliefs can be discarded as easily as clothes that fall out of fashion. Perhaps Johnson, with his hollow patriotism and shallow boosterism, might have been a less disastrous prime minister if Britain was setting off on a new path with a sensible Brexit deal in better times. But prime ministers are defined by events and this man’s abilities and character have long been clear, even if he can be amusing and is an adroit campaigner.
Gordon Brown was another politician whose vapidity was exposed only once he achieved his furious desire to win Downing Street – yet he was at least a substantial figure and formidably well-equipped to deal with fiscal meltdown. Those Tory cheerleaders turning on their former idol must ponder their own role in this national tragedy. Even Sasha Swire, another insufferable egotist, could see through his act. “It scares the shit out of me that people don’t see [Johnson] as the calculating machine he really is,” she wrote in her diaries.
Their negligence is even more disturbing as we hurtle towards hard Brexit and flail around over Covid-19 when Jeremy Hunt, his defeated rival, would have been so much better suited for fighting the pandemic with his long experience as health secretary, business brain and personal ties to Asia. Instead, Britain is led by a man of no fixed beliefs other than in his own right to rule – and the country must suffer the catastrophic consequences of being led by the court jester who was placed on the throne by his court of fools.