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Boris Johnson: mucking about, not muddling through

Whenever your think you've seen past the bluster to the bland self-interest, there's something crasser still. 

December 09 2023, 14.07pm

Centuries' worth of Great Man hagiographies conditioned us to believe that at some level of politics, talking the talk becomes the same as walking the walk, and whatever else you think of Boris Johnson, he’s got the gift of the gab in spades. He blagged himself first into journalism, then into the mayoralty of London, and then into the premiership, all without displaying much craft, or expertise in any of the fields. Churchill, Johnson’s long-suffering role model, famously said history would be kind to him because he intends to write it. He most likely meant that he intends, firstly, to shape it; and secondly, being a lifelong writer of pretty high caliber, that he intends to literally write the historical record himself. Johnson has evidently conflated the two into simultaneous, lifelong grift, trying to shape events exclusively through articulating his view of them, and when that failed, re-articulating the view anew. 

Now he is trying to blag himself out of accountability for Britain’s biggest policy disaster since the Appeasement. Watching him at the COVID inquiry is the typical experience of Johnsonian sleight-of-hand; it’s the “hmm” and the “hah” and the self-deprecation that somehow feels more smug than self-praise. He pretends to take responsibility while dumping it on just about everyone else. He knows we are expecting - or at least desiring - some expression of remorse and guilt; and gives us gilt, instead. 

Under the gilt, however, there is perpetual disappointment - and underneath that, there is further disappointment still. Transparent blagging is a key disarming part of Johnson’s charm. He is so obviously, desperately buffoonish we’re meant to immediately see under the surface, congratulate ourselves on doing so, and think we’ve cracked his code. But there is often a deeper, crasser secret still. 

A good recent example is the tale that Boris Johnson ducked out of early and crucial COBRA meetings on the pandemic not because of obscure and important reasons of state, but because he was holed up at Chequers, writing a book on Shakespeare. So far, so normal: Typical Boris, bookish and roguish, skiving off the boring stuff to chase his own pursuits. But last week, on his podcast with Ed Balls, the former Chancellor George Osborne suggested an even balder truth: that Johnson was rushing to finish the book simply because the switch from highly paid Mayor of London and even higher paid star columnist to being a humble cabinet minister left him with an enormous tax bill. He was not being charmingly, if exasperatingly, distracted; he was maniacally focused on plugging a financial hole. 

While the timing checks out - Johnson's tax bill would have been due on 31 January 2020 - Osborne offers no independent proof, sourcing his allegation entirely to his own direct conversation with the prime minister. But the key moment here is not even whether it is true, or the fact that it sounds as believable as anything Johnson has actually got up to. It’s that even as we argue about what was distracting Boris from his direct responsibilities - with fatal consequences, at that - we all but take it for granted that distracted he was, indeed. Duncan Weldon famously described Britain’s history from the rise of empire right up until Johnson’s premiership as “two hundred years of muddling through”. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that under Johnson himself, the best we can expect is mucking about. Here’s hoping there will never be a prime minister who’ll play Rishi Sunak to his David Cameron.