In his brilliant new book Who is entering politics and why?Academic James Weinberg provides perhaps the most nuanced analysis of why some people choose office and others don’t. His research discovers that when it comes to their fundamental human values, politicians really “different”. After spending the summer reading almost every bio, book, article, and blog ever written about Boris Johnson, I have come to the conclusion that he may be “very different” than your average and already completely “different” politicians.
With COVID causing chaos and Christmas on the horizon, it could be that the Prime Minister’s greatest challenge has little to do with general questions about his trustworthiness and competence – issues that, if we are honest, have haunted his career. It may have more to do with his unwillingness to disappoint. Johnson has always been a larger than life figure on the political pantomime stage. Whether he’s hanging on a rope, waving Cornish pies, or falling into rivers, he’s the ultimate entertainer. To the annoyance of his opponents, the public does not seem to vote for him on the basis of his policies, but simply because he is funny.
He knows that. His skipping antics is part of a carefully calibrated act: the art of distraction played by the clown who is actually the master. The problem is, politics isn’t always fun. One of the paradoxes of a healthy democracy is that politicians will occasionally be forced to make unpopular decisions.
Have to please
The relationship between politics, popularity and populism is undoubtedly complex, but COVID-19 makes life extraordinarily difficult for any politician whose ambition only equates to the need to please him. And this is the core psychological feature of understanding “borisology” that has been almost completely overlooked.
It is almost impossible to read books like Andrew Gimson’s The adventures of Boris Johnson or Sonia Purnells Just Boris and not get away with the unmistakable feeling that Boris is indeed an incredibly vulnerable guy whose confidence and naughty chutzpah obscures a deeper and fairly deep feeling of insecurity.
Many people may find it surprising that Johnson could be someone strangely lost and lonely, but this is the pantomime pathos that needs recognition. “Merry England craves entertainment,” notes Gimson, “and Boris takes care of it.”
The downside is the ferocity with which those who understand the reality of politics seek to tear off Johnson’s mask. As Matthew Parris, himself a former Conservative MP, wrote The times::
Someone has to put an end to the collective pretense that if you’re funny enough in politics, you can laugh at anything … incompetence isn’t funny. Political vacuum isn’t fun. Administrative sloth is not funny. Breaking promises isn’t fun. Careless disregard for the truth is not funny. It’s not funny to put ambition in a fool’s hat.
That was March 2016 and the focus of this diatribe is now on the Prime Minister. And he is the prime minister faced with the uncomfortable task of canceling Christmas – or at least strictly controlling it. This could be the problem that defines Boris’ prime ministry. Can the political pup who needs to be loved play the Grinch who steals Christmas for the public good?
“Boris doesn’t make bad news,” Purnell quotes one of his aides when he is asked why Boris so often seems to disappear from the waves at the critical moment. He’s got a knack for interviewing when political boils need to be stung.
Normal is not an option
Heading into winter and with coronavirus cases increasing, it’s ridiculous that Boris recently hinted that restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in one place could be eased for Christmas. When asked whether families of five are not allowed to have their grandparents with them for Christmas because this would violate the “rule of six”, the prime minister said ITV“We’re not saying that at all … We’re doing everything we can to make sure Christmas is as normal as possible for everyone.”
While other ministers try and Stay tuned Johnson can’t resist the pressure to please.
Johnson has played this card before. Back in July he spoke of plans for “a significant return to normal” by Christmas. But in less than 80 days, and as the challenges of containing and controlling the virus clearer, it may be time to convey a slightly different message.
Christmas 2020 will not be normal. Even if a vaccine is discovered or the virus is somehow suppressed, the immediate economic impact on those who have lost their jobs or businesses won’t go away. Even Johnson’s entry that “it will continue to be bumpy until Christmas, and it may even be bumpy beyond that” cannot capture the extent of the challenge.
Politics is all about caution Public Expectation Management But when it comes to COVID-19 and Christmas, Johnson may be wise to muffling the public’s festive thoughts about a “normal” Christmas instead of speaking out.
Learning to promise too little and then deliver too much would be a sensible strategy for Johnson, but then again, playing the Grinch is just not his style.