Boris Johnson got stuck on a zip-line during BT London Live in Victoria Park on 1 August 2012 in London, England. (Photo credit: Barcroft Media / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Boris Johnson: a study in success?

If a biography of Boris had been published after his election victory it could have been fairly titled “Boris: A Study in Success”, but twelve months is an eternity in politics

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and if a single image encapsulates the astonishing political career of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, it is the moment when he hung immobile and suspended from a zip wire during the run up to the 2012 Olympics when he was Mayor of London.

For any other politician this ludicrous event would have spelled career ruin. Take the unflattering picture of the then Labour leader Ed Miliband unsuccessfully attempting to eat a bacon sandwich during the 2015 General Election campaign. The frozen image seemed to sum up voters’ doubts about poor Ed’s ability to empathise with ordinary people, and he duly went on to lose the election and with it his hopes of becoming prime minister.

The reaction to Boris’s high wire act was quite different. Here was a man entirely lacking in pompous dignity, prepared to make an utter fool of himself. People laughed – but crucially, and unlike Ed, they laughed with Boris, rather than at him. The fact that the prime minister is universally and affectionately referred to by his unusual second forename, ignoring the efforts of his enemies to brand him merely as “Johnson”, is another indication of his widespread popularity, despite the myriad mistakes made during the Covid-19 crisis. He is the only politician since his hero Churchill to be so fondly known.

Above all, perhaps, Boris cheers us up

Boris is hardly a man of the people. A product of the education provided by our most exclusive school and university, he can hardly claim to understand or sympathise with the struggles of less privileged folk. But this doesn’t seem to matter. He possesses to a unique degree the ability to make people feel that they can understand him. In his own posh parlance, he may be a cad but he is also a card. All his accoutrements and props go to underpin this feeling: the messed hair, the even messier “private” life, the Latin tags and lame jokes – all make Boris stand out from the crowd of stiff suits around him and the dull, excruciatingly boring nonentities who make up the rest of our mediocre politicians. It may, as his foes allege, be all an act, but it is widely believed.

Above all, perhaps, he cheers us up. Just looking at him in his ill-fitting clothes and the – surely deliberately donned – ridiculous headgear that he wears for his jogs puts a smile on our faces. What a contrast he makes to his opposite number Sir Keir Starmer. The Labour leader cannot help what he looks like of course, but he seems to find it difficult – if not impossible – to crack a smile or a joke. His face, looking like it was carved from molten plastic, is programmed and set into an expression of permanently disapproving puzzlement at the wicked ways of the world. And it is crowned by the perfectly combed barnet on top with not an oiled hair out of place. Not exactly, we feel, a man who would be comfortable sinking a pint with the lads in Stoke or Sunderland on a Saturday night. If Boris is a cut-price latter-day Churchill, then Starmer is surely a reincarnation of Labour’s austere and puritanical Chancellor Sir Stafford Cripps, of whom Churchill quipped: “There, but for the grace of God, goes God”.

It may be argued that in serious times we need a serious prime minister, not a japing jokester like Boris. But earnest seriousness and lawyerly forensic examination of detail do not always add up to taking correct decisions, and Starmer’s career is littered with making the wrong calls on a range of issues from his awful stint as Director of Public Prosecutions, to his disastrous devising of Labour’s incoherent second referendum non-Brexit policy, which helped lose them the Red Wall seats and hence the 2019 election. Boris, in sharp contrast, has time and again gambled – and won. He possesses in spades what Napoleon demanded of his generals: luck.

Boris, despite his evident desire to be liked, has often attracted envious hatred as his career has climbed skyward

As Paul Goodman – often a critic of the PM – argued in a piece this week on his Conservative Home website, beneath Boris’s buffoonish bluster is a cold and carefully calculating brain which has repeatedly taken the right road on his weaving way towards the Premiership. He was right to run for Mayor in Labour London, which gave him a national platform to launch his long campaign for No. 10. Right again – win or lose – to espouse Leave in the 2016 Referendum which won him the hearts of the Tory Brexit faithful. Right to quit May’s Cabinet in protest against her Brino treachery. And, when he became PM, he was both bold and right to purge the Remainers from the Parliamentary party. Right to outwit the opposition into allowing an election; and right to call and win it on the simple slogan of “Getting Brexit Done”. Finally, he has been right in negotiating a deal to get Britain out from under the EU’s suffocating clutches.

All this was achieved against the determined efforts and increasingly bitter enmity not only of the official opposition parties, but – like Churchill – of a considerable chunk of his own party too. Boris, despite his evident desire to be liked, has often attracted envious hatred as his career has climbed skyward. The Establishment naturally loathe this maverick who breaks all their rules, but so do some of his closest colleagues and the editors who worked with him in his previous incarnation as a journalist.

His army of enemies accuse him – possibly justly – of laziness, mendacity, corruption, duplicity, and a total absence of principle beyond his own advancement. (As if these qualities are unknown in politics). But their barbs and bullets have bounced harmlessly off the Boris bulldozer, barely scratching its paintwork. Their insensate rage as he has succeeded in all his aims have reached extremes of spitting impotent fury on social media and in the op ed columns of the Leftist press, but have done their target no discernible damage at all.

Enoch Powell famously observed that all political careers, unless they are cut off by a happy accident, end in failure. If Boris had been killed by the virus that laid him low in April, he would be remembered as a colourful success story felled in his prime just as he had reached the summit of his inordinate ambition. He survived, only to attract an avalanche of assault for his administration’s often inept response to the nation’s gravest crisis since the Second World War.

Twelve months is an eternity in politics

2021 will show how that crisis plays out. Will Nemesis follow Hubris, or will Lady Luck continue to embrace this master of seduction, allowing Boris to pluck the flower safely from the nettle of Covid danger? And will his achievement of Brexit prove a stunning success or an abysmal failure? Only time will tell. A previous biographer of Churchill, Robert Rhodes James, subtitled his work “A Study in Failure” as it concluded just before the great man became PM. If a biography of Boris had been published a year ago after his 80-seat election victory it could have been fairly titled “Boris: A Study in Success”, but twelve months is an eternity in politics.

Meanwhile, the high wire act continues, and this skater on the thinnest of ice skates serenely on.

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