Even for someone as chronically addicted to the limelight as Boris Johnson appears to be, this has been a tumultuous seven days of media coverage for the would be Tory Prime Minister.
In the midst of a continuing tabloid frenzy about the state of his marriage he has managed to pen a column for the Mail on Sunday in which he accused the government’s Brexit dealings of being “feeble” and “pathetic”.
One of the mysteries of the current negotiations, he wrote, was that the UK was so “utterly feeble”. And, using the inflammatory and completely unnecessary language of which he is so evidently fond, he stated it was as if we had: “wrapped a suicide vest around our constitution and handed the detonator to Brussels”
It’s all so familiar and predictable. Alan Duncan MP, once a close colleague of Johnson’s wrote: “For Boris to say the PM’s view is like that of a suicide bomber is too much. This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics.”
The interesting thing here is that such criticism, even from within the Tory party, is pretty regular and yet all the opprobrium which Johnson clearly receives has no discernible effect on how he chooses to communicate.
Let’s go back to October last year when he was Foreign Secretary. Then, Johnson addressed a Tory fringe meeting where he suggested, to uneasy laughter, that the Libyan city of Sirte could become the “next Dubai” if only they could “clear the dead bodies away”.
This led Sarah Wollaston MP to publically claim that demeaning jokes about real people murdered in Libya would be crass even from a stand-up comedian and that she was appalled to hear this from our Foreign Secretary. As she later pointed out, the most important fact was that this was the UK’s premier diplomat “representing us on the world stage”
The truth is such behaviour is not unexpected from Johnson, who seems driven to attempt to lighten the most serious of moments with inopportune levity. His career is littered with inappropriate conduct. References, whilst working as a journalist for the Telegraph, to black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” competes with his description of the people of Papua New Guinea as prone to “cannibalism and chief-killing” in levels of offensiveness.
All politicians should have a hinterland, but you can take these things too far – as the events of May 2016 illustrate. Then, Johnson was awarded first prize in the Spectator’s ‘Offensive Poetry competition’, in which entrants were encouraged to write about Turkish President, Recep Erdogan. His winning limerick contained references to masturbation, bestiality and began with the lines, “there was a young man from Ankara…” Perhaps you can guess the rest but, two months later Theresa May appointed Johnson as Foreign Secretary.
Yes. Two months later Theresa May appointed Johnson as Foreign Secretary.
His track record suggests that he operates with the casual certainty of a privileged man who knows that whatever he says won’t be held against him. And even if he is criticised in some quarters, then that’s alright too because it all adds to a personal brand value. The easy willingness with which sections of the media refer to him simply as “Boris” is important because the use of the forename carries with it the connotations of indulgence and familiarity which are usually afforded to an elderly relative who breaks wind at the dinner table.
But Johnson is not a joke. He is not, as stated by Radio 4’s Eddie Mair, the Tory’s Bernard Manning. He happens to have been Mayor of London and until recently Foreign Secretary at the most important time in post war British history. His underlings at the Foreign Office reportedly despaired of his unsuitability for the role while the rest of Europe apparently looked on aghast at the arrogance and ineptitude. As Nina Schick, a political commentator and advisor specialising in EU policy, German politics and Brexit has pointed out, Johnson “does not operate in a vacuum and is seriously doing an unbelievable amount of reputational damage to the UK”.
And yet here he is, as I write, in the House of Commons “refusing to deny he’ll challenge Theresa May for the Tory leadership if she won’t budge on her Brexit plan.”
Divisive as he is, there still seems to be a great deal public support for him. As I’ve written before about Katie Hopkins, Johnson is at the vanguard of popular opinion saying the unsayable in an age when the values of free speech are perceived to be undermined almost daily. In an environment considered by many to dominated by political correctness, he represents a freedom of thought and candour not terribly obvious in his Conservative colleagues. Least of all in Theresa May.
It is also important to remember that though he may say and do foolish things from time to time, he is most definitely not a fool. He is a skilled political operator and his buffoonish appearance and actions are, by some accounts, carefully thought out and calculated. According to Professor of Security Studies, George Kassimeris:
“Every statement, every intervention and every ‘gaffe’ has been calculated with Swiss-made watch precision to get Johnson eventually where he desperately wants to be: 10 Downing St.”
But far from this being an era of restraint and political correctness I would agree with former Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, in his assertion that we are living through a crisis of public language.
We only have to look across the pond to the campaign and presidency of Donald Trump to see that the norms and conventions of how politicians communicate have significantly changed. In very recent years past, who would have imagined a presidential candidate surviving a public airing of him boasting about sexual assault, mocking the disabled or insinuating that the pro gun lobby might be moved to assassinate his opponent?
Trump’s assault on language is daily evident and clearly part of his appeal to core supporters is in his decidedly non traditional modes of address. He ran on the platform of being the anti politician candidate who was going to drain the Washington “swamp” of corruption and cronyism.
In this sense, the eschewing of conventional political communication is part of Trump’s continual effort to demonstrate that he is somehow different to those who have preceded him. But far from freshening up politics, Trump’s extraordinary approach to the Presidency has devalued the office. The global perception of the Unites States now appears to veer from exasperated disbelief at how things now are, to a genuine fear that nuclear war is imminent. Trump’s farcical slanging match/love in with the equally unpredictable Kim Jong Un of North Korea is devoid of any recognisable sort of diplomacy
So for Trump read Johnson. The latter may well ride this particular storm and emerge as his party’s leader. All his misdemeanours notwithstanding, Johnson has political nous and an obvious ability to surface from controversy relatively unscathed. That’s an important factor in today’s political landscape.
Sections of this blog appeared here in October, 2017