They say a week is a long time in politics. By that measure, this one has been longer than most. We’ve seen Theresa May’s departure from Downing Street (headed for Lords, it seems, and most likely a glass or two of chilled Pinot Grigio) and the installation of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson as prime minister and first lord of the Treasury, followed by the most brutal and wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle in recent history. The Bullingdon Butcher wielded not a clumsy cleaver of so many premiers before him; his was the swift, flashing scalpel that made quick, precise incisions in the body politic.
Boris is a singular politician. I’ve met him several times, mostly while he was Mayor of London, and it’s true that he’s enormously charismatic and warm, capable of making the object of his gaze feel like the centre of the universe for as long as they are having a conversation. That’s an immense gift, not unique by any means but rare and difficult to pull off convincingly. The other source of Boris’s charm (notice that we all just call him “Boris”, not “Johnson”, or “Prime Minister”) is that he gives off an aura of not caring about his image. He is, of course, famously tousled and unkempt, some say deliberately so, though his wilder excesses seem to have been at least temporarily tamed now he is the Queen’s first minister; to look at him is to see the personification of an untucked shirt.
It’s not just that, though. He seems not to care about what he says or does. How much of this is manufactured is a fascinating but moot point, and it is obviously calculated for impact – but only in the sense that he doesn’t mind what the impact is. He doesn’t parse carefully to appear to certain demographics or constituencies, as a rule, though I do think he’s guilty of perpetrating some unpleasant dog-whistle politics to shore up his support from the right. The overall image, however, is that he’s a man who says what he thinks, often the unsayable, and articulates what other people are thinking but daren’t express. So we have women in burqas resembling “letterboxes” and being compared to bank robbers, black children being “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” (an homage to Enoch Powell’s “charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies”?).
Throughout all this, in places where it counts, Boris’s reputation remains untarnished. Boris will be Boris, as Tony Blair might have said. We all know about his messy private life – lover upon lover upon lover, illegitimate children, deception, mendacity, betrayal – and his supporters love him for it. He’s relatable – not bad for a cosmopolitan, New York-born Old Etonian who’s enjoyed most advantages in life. We all make mistakes, people think, we all screw up from time to time, and, Boris is no different. He takes mistakes and screw-ups to the next level, and we look on with sympathy but also, somehow, admiration.
Partly this stems, I think, from the belief, true or not, that the new PM is essentially benign. His former lover, Petronella Wyatt, told the Mail on Sunday: “Boris never sets out to lie. It is just that he will do anything to avoid an argument, which leads to a degree of duplicity.” You can say that again, Petronella. (Remember that, when first presented with the accusation of infidelity with Miss Wyatt, Boris described it as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”.) For a politician, this fireproofing is a huge asset. He has more slack cut for him than anyone else in political life at the moment. The public, or at least that section of it which isn’t irreconcilable to the Johnson charm, shrugs at his misdemeanours and smiles indulgently. “Oh, Boris.” Perhaps he sees his invulnerability as akin to that of his hero and subject of his recent book, Winston Churchill. Sometimes the Britain-is-best, going-forward-to-win messaging can make them seem of a kind.
My advice to the new PM, however, would be to make sure that the slack is not simply more rope, paid out for the traditional purpose. Theresa May was a dour, cold, remote figure, and if Boris brings more colour, warmth and approachability to the premiership then I think most people will welcome it. You can, however, have too much of a good thing. Charles Kennedy found that as Liberal Democrat leader; he was sharp, witty, incisive and intelligent, a delight to talk to and with vibrant opinions. But he was “Chatshow Charlie,” or (more darkly, as it turned out) “Champagne Charlie”. The voters came to believe that the bonhomie was all there was, all repartee and no substance. Humour is a great weapon in your armoury, but if it’s all you’re perceived to have, you can be left looking like a man who brought a knife to a gunfight.
But here too is an opportunity. We all know Boris has a shrewd political brain – and now it’s time for him to use it. Gone is the Maybot. Now Boris should lose the blundering buffoonery and reboot to Boris 2.0; more serious of purpose, less flippant, better informed, and more thoughtful. A leader for difficult times, trusted to steer the ship of state – and someone who, when it’s all over, will legitimately earn the comparison to Churchill he so craves.