Is there any brand in the history of advertising that has come up with a slogan as ingenious as Marmite’s “You Either Love It Or Hate It”?
I say this as someone who despises Marmite. To quote the singer Amanda Palmer lamenting her partner’s love of this inexplicable condiment, “it tastes like sadness, it tastes like batteries”.
But that’s precisely the point: Marmite isn’t aimed at me, as its slogan makes abundantly clear. Rather, it’s aimed at everyone who doesn’t consider the stuff liquid death, whose food preferences suddenly become a matter of identity.
You don’t just like it, the marketing goes, you love it.
Thus taste is transformed into an us-versus-them form of tribalism. More crucially, Marmite cannot be criticised. Anyone who dares express their dislike is cordoned off firmly in the “hate” camp, where their views become irrelevant. It’s not meant for us, we wouldn’t understand, so our feelings on it just don’t matter.
And if you’re in the “love” camp, what is there to criticise? There is simply no space for constructive dialogue about the merits and pitfalls of Marmite in any context.
This psychological masterstroke explains the phenomenon that is Boris Johnson.
Boris (currently the only UK politician who can get away with being called by his first name) looks set to become our next Prime Minister, scooping up 114 of the votes – more than the next three candidates combined – in the opening round of the Tory leadership contest.
The vitriol that Boris evokes among both the general population and his political colleagues is eyebrow-raising even by Westminster standards. He’s been called a liar, a coward, a narcissist in the vein of everyone’s most despised blond despot, Donald Trump.
No other leadership contender merited an entire counter-movement to try to block him, codenamed Operation Arse because (to quote an anonymous senior Tory) “we called it that so we’d all be clear who we were talking about”.
But with the hatred comes the love. And not just love – a kind of fanatical idolisation that renders all criticism meaningless and all transgressions immaterial.
Consider the launch of the Boris campaign on Wednesday when, after months of bunker-silence, he finally got quizzed by journalists.
Sky News’ Beth Rigby asked an entirely valid question about some past comments in which Boris compared Muslim women wearing the burka to letterboxes. In the context of the party’s growing Islamophobia scandal, the candidate’s propensity to say the most incendiary thing possible to pander to the Tory base should be a major cause for concern.
Rigby was literally jeered at by his supporters in the room, who later took to Twitter to vent their outrage that someone would dare disrespect a candidate so rudely by reminding him of things he said.
Or take the former MP and leading Brexiteer Douglas Carswell (once a Conservative, then a Ukipper, then an independent). Carswell is, unsurprisingly, in the “love Boris” camp. He tweeted earlier this week: “Prepare to see the Establishment media, civil servants and opinion formers throw everything they can at Boris. Like all monstrous oligarchies, they are desperate to preserve the old order”.
It is hard to think of an MP more “old order” than Boris, who has ascended to power with the backing of an exceptionally well-connected family via Eton, Oxford, and a number of cushy journalism jobs.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that trajectory – it’s as absurd to say someone shouldn’t be Prime Minister because of their privileged background as to argue that they are automatically entitled to it.
But Carswell is trying to preemptively neuter any legitimate criticism of his favoured candidate – on his patchy record as foreign secretary, his nebulous plans for Brexit, his habit of alienating colleagues – by branding necessary scrutiny a coordinated establishment attack. He is basically dismissing any attempt to hold a potential future Prime Minister to account.
Boris may well be the best candidate to unify the fractured Tory party, and perhaps his remarkable appeal to such a wide range of audiences will help the country move forward on Brexit. But he deserves to be challenged, tested, and held to the same rigorous standard as everyone else running.
If Michael Gove is hauled over the coals for a decades-old brush with cocaine, so should Boris, who has all but admitted to the same thing.
If Dominic Raab is pinned down on his ineptitude as a member of Theresa May’s cabinet, so should Boris, who was one of the most disastrous foreign secretaries in modern British history.
If Jeremy Hunt is accused of flip-flopping in his attitude towards a no-deal Brexit, Boris should face the same music about the myriad contradictions, half-truths, and U-turns that have come out of his mouth over the past three years.
Alas, any such interrogation is as pointless as suggesting that Marmite could do with a little less salt. Boris is Boris, and can therefore get away with feats of laziness, incompetence, or brazen incongruity that would floor any other candidate.
If you love him, you will forgive him any fault. If you don’t, you’re an establishment Remoaner out of touch with British society, so nothing you say matters anyway.
It’s a brilliant way to sell a brand of inedible yeast-spread. But it’s a reckless way to pick a Prime Minister.