Never underestimate most people’s lack of interest in politics – as practised at Westminster, anyway. Here at ConservativeHome, we’re obsessed by it. Our readers are at the very least interested in it. So it’s sometimes an effort to remember that most of Britain is Rhett Butler: “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.
But now and again, a politician breaks through the cloud of unknowing and becomes a Given, a Fact – like the weather. Modern Britain has seen three. The first was Margaret Thatcher. The second, Tony Blair. The third, Boris Johnson.
Each vanished inside themselves and returned as an icon. Thatcher was embraced first hesitantly, then decisively, as embodying the end of a clapped-out post-war settlement. She became, with apologies to Dominic Raab and the gang, Britannia Unchained.
Blair was the beneficiary of revulsion at Conservatives who had run out of steam, and he projected an archetype of the age: of youthful, ideology-light, transformative leadership – a standard model in the west since J.F.Kennedy.
The Prime Minister has a smaller majority than either (though at 80-plus it is perfectly satisfactory) but a bigger inheritance: indeed, nothing is ever more likely to become him like his victory of almost two years ago.
After inheriting a broken party on nine per cent of the vote, expelling a swathe of his senior MPs, falling into an even bigger Parliamentary minority, wrangling with the judges and somehow gaining an election, Johnson won it and delivered Brexit.
This was more fundamental break with the recent past than Blair’s or even Thatcher’s. So if Thatcher was Britannia and Blair Kennedy, who is the Prime Minister?
We won’t for a moment waste our time and yours by probing what he passed off yesterday as a speech. Insofar as it was one, its content was levelling up – a traditional Tory idea of a One Nationish kind, to be achieved by electic mayoral methods: more Blair than Thatcher.
No, what Johnson did yesterday was less to make a speech than paint a picture: “generally funkapolitan party”…”my chestnuts out of Tartarean pit”…”chewed his pensive quill”…”raucus squaukus from the anti-AUKUS caucus”…“reprendre le control”…
“Build Back Beaver…the greatest Frost since the great frost of 1709…fibre-optic vermicelli…66,000 sausages aboard…”aquatic forest of white turbines”… “if you can steal a dog or cat there is frankly no limit to your depravity”…
This is what he has been doing all the way from his stint as the Daily Telegraph‘s Brussels correspondent (“Brussels bureaucrats have shown their legendary attention to detail by rejecting new specifications for condom dimensions”) to the premiership.
This is less a real though dead American president than another great and imaginary British archetype, but with a twist: Boris Johnson is John Bull with his trousers down. Or should that be Winston Churchill?
Johnson, after all, has written a light but vivid book about the great Conservative and Liberal. Perhaps it is impertinent or, worse, simply wrong to seek comparisons between the psychology of the two.
But we think there’s something in it, and the temptation is irresitible. In his essay on Churchill and his “Black Dog” – i.e: his depression – Anthony Storr zeroes in on the former Prime Minister’s paintings.
“I must say, I like bright colours. When I get to heaven…I shall require a still gayer palette than I get here below…there will be a whole range of wonderful new colours that will delight the celestial eye,” Churchill himself wrote.
Storr goes on to write that “in psycho-analytical jargon, this is manic defence. The counterpart to the gloomy, subfusc world of the depressive is a realm of perpetual excitement and action, in which colours are richer and brighter…
…gallant deeds are accomplished by heroes, and ideas expressed in language replete with simile, ornamented with epithet, and sparkling with mellifluous turns of phrase.”
We can’t help but find parallels in the life of Churchill’s successor, who could himself produce striking doodles during Telegraph editorial conferences, and is the child of two artists.
One, in words (Stanley Johnson won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry at Oxford); the other, on canvas. Charlotte Johnson Wahl‘s struggle with depression and OCD is well known enough not to need repetition.
“That’s the trouble with Anthony—half mad baronet, half beautiful woman”, Rab Butler said of Eden, whose mother was a beautiful woman and whose father was, well, you get it.
There is a lot more to the Prime Minister, or to anyone else, than being half each of both parents, but we think that there is something in it – and that, whether so or not, many people want nothing more than being cheered up. Which Johnson does in spades.
All this is a long way from Italian condoms, let alone levelling up and Johnson’s speech today, but it may offer a surer guide to his success. At any rate, his connection to the unpoliticised – his being a Fact and a Given – leaves the next election his to lose.
The Conservatives are on their fourth term in government, but neither David Cameron nor Theresa May won a solid Tory majority. That Johnson did so two years ago made the Manchester Conference feel like that of a governing party for the first time since 2010.
In other words, Brexit has given him a first term, rather than a Conservative fourth one, and he still leads in the polls despite Covid, shortages, Chesham & Amersham, the Northern Ireland Protocol, the endless redefinings of levelling up – much, really.
Yet what would embarrass another leader somehow washes over him. Take the absurd spectacle of the most important woman in his private life, Carrie Johnson, speaking at a conference reception co-hosted by Stonewall…
…Which the most important woman in his public one, Liz Truss, has slated – urging government to pull out of its employment scheme. And, yes, the Foreign Secretary was actually there at the event.
“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman wrote. “Very well then I contract myself…I am large, I contain multitudes.” He might have been summing the Prime Minister up in a couple of sentences.
The time may come when the show stops going on because the audience has had enough. Most governments are felled by the question: “where’s the delivery?” Somewhere in their second term, they usually run out of steam, and luck too.
Johnson’s great-grandfather, a liberal Turkish politician and journalist, was strung up by a group of paramilitary officers – in legend, a mob. We’ve sometimes wondered if the Prime Minister will meet an end less bloody but no less dramatic.
The more those failed Remainers rage at him, the more he laughs, as he winds them up like a watch. His hold on his party is brutal. But one day, the worm – sorry those backbenchers – may turn.
And the British people will have had enough of this Given and Fact, whose authority comes partly from being a known quantity. As this site has written for two days running and now writes for a third, the state is too big, taxes too high and levelling up too inchoate.
But for the moment, he is in pole position and poll position – shortages, price rises, queues and all. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial,” Churchill wrote as he entered Downing Street in 1940. Where he walked with destiny, Johnson winks at it.