Boris vs Johnson

One is a feel-good gung-ho funster, the other man has to actually run the place

There’s a tension at the heart of every government. Thatcher vs Lawson. Blair vs Brown. May vs the Conservative Party. And now Boris vs Johnson.

When Conservative MPs chose their new leader in 2019, they were very clear they were voting for Boris, the feel-good gung-ho funster who could sell snow to Eskimos. Boris would biff the EU and bash the rotter Corbs and then there’d be lashings of fizzy pop all around. And, broadly, Boris delivered.

The problem area is Johnson, the chap who actually runs things. If Boris is the bloke who writes the cheques, Johnson is the fellow who has to try to cash them. Which can be tricky. Boris’s oven-ready Brexit deal, Johnson is learning, turns out to be not as illustrated on the packet. While Boris is gleefully celebrating the end of Covid, Johnson’s eye is drawn to the lines arching upwards on the graphs. 

In the modern 10 commandments there’s a lot less about false witness and adultery

It is Johnson who often finds himself dealing with difficult questions from MPs and journalists about all of this country’s bloody problems, some of which may be the result of things Boris has done, and almost all of which Boris has at some point assured us were either on the point of being fixed or didn’t exist in the first place.

But on Tuesday morning, we got a happy outing for Boris. He was at the Science Museum in London, addressing the Global Investment Summit, a corporate shindig. It was the sort of event that Boris loves, taking him back to his mayor of London days, when he was uncontroversially popular. 

When Johnson meets businesspeople these days, they just want to whine on about trucks and drivers and petrol and pigs and borders and all sorts of tedious stuff that takes the joy out of life. But here, Boris could make a speech laden with amusing anecdotes and little bits of word play, seeming as ever to teeter on the brink of offending someone before somehow returning to safety. 

The exhibits all around them, he said, were “the cornflakes that got to the top of the packet – they are the winners.” He invited us to think of the failed inventions that hadn’t made it, as he made a point – or did he, it’s so very hard to tell if he has a point in these things – about how brilliant innovation was. 

It was, he pointed out, scientists from Oxford university who developed a Covid vaccine – “my own” university, Boris modestly added, inviting us to draw a link between his 1986 presidency of the Union and the salvation of mankind.

Britain now had, Boris went on, a “ten-point plan” to deliver a “green industrial revolution”, a “new Decalogue that I brought down from Sinai last year”. (For those unfamiliar with the modern 10 commandments that our latter-day Moses has delivered, there’s a lot less about false witness and adultery, and a lot more about low-carbon hydrogen. The stuff about having no other gods is implicit, for Boris is a jealous god, who brought us out of the EU.)

Journalist and government spokesperson aren’t roles that are usually considered compatible

And then we were into Britain-Boosting Boris’s greatest hits: Time zone! Language! Peppa Pig! Adele, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran! Less rain than Rome! “This is the great cultural Moulinex of the world, it is the cyclotron of talent.” In this speech, Brexit wasn’t a regulatory nightmare that was making life harder for businesses, it was a triumph of divergence. He wasn’t a grumpy prime minister telling business leaders that they should pay higher wages and more taxes, he was Willy Wonka, inviting us to join him in a world of pure imagination. The summit itself had already been a success! Everything was wonderful. Boris was free and joyful, Johnson nowhere to be seen.

He briefly left the stage to be replaced by Allegra Stratton, who was introduced as a “journalist and government spokesperson”. These aren’t roles that are usually considered compatible, although they are sometimes combined on an unofficial basis. Stratton cleared up the issue of which of those she was by welcoming back “my boss, the prime minister”, and following that up with a question worthy of Woodward, Bernstein and Sir Robin Day at the heights of their collective powers: “First of all, prime minister, you have an announcement for us all?”

There was more of this. “Prime minister, I work with you, I know you very well.” What was coming? Details of another love-child? Revelations about who paid for the flat? Not quite. “You deeply passionately believe in dealing with climate change.” 

“I do, Allegra.”

Joining them was celebrity nerd Bill Gates. He said poorer countries needed help decarbonising their economies. “In your book,” Stratton said, “I think you’ve called that ‘global levelling-up’.” Is there anything that isn’t called that these days?

It would cost a lot, Gates explained, but Boris jumped in to point out the upside: “People will get a very substantial return!”

And just for a moment, reality broke in. “Yeah, well,” Gates replied, “not so much.” Stratton laughed nervously. Somewhere in the wings, Johnson put his head in his hands. Another bounced cheque.

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