“This Budget will deliver a stronger economy for the whole of the UK. We’re building back better from the pandemic with a more innovative, high skill and high wage economy that will level up across the country.”—Tweet from Boris Johnson after Sunak’s Budget Speech, 27.10.21
And so we come to Boris Johnson, the latest in 21st century top dogs who see the rules are for mere mortals, but not for them. He does not have the vision and charisma of Blair or Obama; he does not have the planetary ego and unshakeable chutzpah of Trump. But he has earned his place in the Pantheon of Walkers on Water—of politicians whose personality comes to dominate the party that begat them, rather than the other way round.
Boris has long had form. Early on, he was fired as a journalist for making up a quote. As a reporter in Brussels, he cottoned on to English hostility to Europe and recognised a bandwagon to ride. A shrewd move was to be elected as Mayor of London brought him into the public eye. There his trademark tousled blonde mop, his boisterous manner and media baits like bendy buses and Boris bikes meant he received for more exposure than he could as an MP and his bloke-ish affability (c.f. Nigel Farage) took him into the consciousness of many outside his party and even outside politics. Throw in non-political appearances, such as on Have I Got News for You and the profile becomes that of famous actor or rock star, which few politicians ever achieve.
Once back in parliament, he was soon in the thick of the Leave campaign, once Cameron had released the jingoistic Tory genie out of tits bottle with the 2016 EU Referendum. It was here that Boris refined (though that may not be the correct term) as a political force in his own right. Gleefully attaching himself to slogans and assertions that owed more to posture than fact (£300m for the NHS if we leave), his rise stumbled when Michael Gove stabbed his leadership bid in the back.
It was, however, soon back on track when one of Theresa May’s many misjudgements was to appoint him Foreign Minister.. In his two years of tenure, he alienated more countries than any other in the post over that period of time. These were not gaffes, but tactics to keep him in the public eye. And when May’s faltering premiership ran out of road, Boris enjoyed the nearest thing to a coronation we’ve seem since 1953.
The next few months saw Boris at his presidential busiest, flitting from photo op to photo up, hair tousled, head down, as if about to butt someone, driving a fotk-lift though a polystyrene wall to “Get Brexit Done”. After May’s dither, Boris’ decisiveness carried not just the country, but many “Red Wall” seats ‘oop North’. By making Brexit the theme and leading the charge, he upstaged his own party. But, with a majority of 80 after a decade of weakness, nobody complained.
Boris was no Blair; he had no visionary agenda. But what he did have was Trump’s elastic and opportunistic relationship with facts, as well as much of his disdain for the niceties of tradition and procedure. As the shabby earnestness of Corbyn gave way to the dapper earnestness of Starmer, he came into his own, cheerfully ignoring substance at Prime Minster’s Question Time and taking gladiatorial joy in turning each into an attack on the Opposition. It was a home brew distillation of Trump’s “Fake News” handbook. Though few non-anoraks watch PMQs, the spirit of it leaked out and all his bumbling but can-do appearances have served to cut across party and even political barriers to give him a genuine, if undeserved, aura of “man of the people”, much as Trump achieved.
Especially given the bland and interchangeable facelessness of most of his Cabinet, it is his personal popularity that is carrying the Conservatives now. To date, the many gaffes (too slow to lock down; £40bn wasted on Test & Trace; no ‘over ready’ social care plan, even after two years), their accumulated effect has yet to cause damage, not least because Labour has been no more fleet of foot catching Boris than the Democrats were with Trump.
Whether the Conservatives can weather the fall when Boris goes is not clear. The First Republic did not survive Napoleon and the Labour party has yet to show it can survive Blair. But all three will live on in history books ling after the conventional Chamberlains and Coolidges are reduced to footnotes.
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