Foolish, but no fool: Boris Johnson and the art of politicsBy Matthew Flinders on 7 June 2013
It would be too easy - and also quite mistaken - to define Boris Johnson as little more than the clown of British politics; more accurate to define him as a deceptively polished and calculating über-politician.
It’s the news that receives the least attention that arguably tells us the most about contemporary politics and society. The fact that the decision by the Appeal Court that it was in the ‘public interest’ for people to know that Boris Johnson had fathered a child in 2009 was met with little or no public outcry or debate therefore pricked my attention (a poor choice of phrase I admit). Philandering politicians are rarely popular and in this case the British judicial system seemed intent on underlining the manner in which Boris Johnson’s ‘recklessness’ raised serious questions about his fitness for public office. And yet there would be appear to be one set of political rules for Boris and a completely different set for all other politicians. Social attitude surveys consistently reveal that the public expects higher moral standards and behavior from its elected representatives than from any other profession. The public appear, however, far more forgiving when it comes to ‘Boris’ – a poll last week found that over three-quarters of respondents disagreed that the revelation about him secretly fathering a child would make them any less inclined to vote for him in a General Election.
As Paul Goodman, the editor of the ConservativeHome website, said, ‘In modern politics unconventional politicians are judged by different rules from conventional ones. Boris is part of a small band of unconventional politicians’. The danger of this interpretation, however, is that it risks adding to ‘the cult of Boris’ in a way that simply overlooks the carefully manufactured foppishness. The head scratching dufferishness, slightly confused – even deranged – look of a person that does not seem to know where they have been, where they are or where they are going is little more than an act. An act, more importantly, that veils the existence of an incredibly sharp, astute and calculating politician.
The public may therefore be entertained by Boris Johnson’s antics and he certainly adds a dash of color to an increasingly grey and soulless profession but there might be some value in looking a little deeper at someone who actually covets the very highest office. I’m not actually bothered if ‘ping pong is coming home’ or if he ‘mildly sandpapered something somebody said’ (and was sacked from The Times as a result) or about any of the other misdemeanors and indiscretions that form part of his personal or political history. I am, however, interested in understanding this capacity for political survival and renewal and in isolating what distinguishes Boris from his contemporaries. The answer lies in a combination of charisma and guile.
Charisma is, as Max Weber famously argued, a critical element of political leadership despite the fact that it is almost impossible to measure, define or quantify. The simple fact is that - like him or loathe him - Boris Johnson is a charismatic. I remember watching him address a large public audience in Bromley during the summer of 2010 as part of the Mayor of London’s ‘Outreach’ initiative and what was immediately striking was the manner in which he almost captivated the audience. They were entranced to the extent that strident political opponents seem disarmed by his rhetoric, energy and emotion. He knew how to play the audience and play them – like a conductor on his podium – he did. Charisma on its own is not enough and just as Machiavelli argued that a true leader needed the strength of a lion and the cunning of a fox so too must charisma be matched by guile.
One central element of Boris Johnson’s political arsenal rests in answering every question not with an answer but with a joke or an anecdote; guile in the form of distraction. The hot gymnasium in a large Bromley secondary school therefore provided a masterclass in political oratory and theatre but little in terms of serious ‘Questions and Answers with the Mayor of London’. The critical point, however, was that nobody in the audience seemed to care. They had come – from all walks of life and from all parts of the political spectrum – to see ‘the Boris Show’ and that’s what they got. As I loitered by the exit to the gym at the end of the event I asked one or two questioners how they felt about the manner in which Boris had dealt with their questions (obliquely in one case, not at all in the other): the responses - ‘Isn’t he lovely!’ and ‘I don’t care – it was good fun!’ – left me strangely puzzled and downcast.
The point I am trying to make is that Boris Johnson is no fool. He may often be foolish in terms of how he behaves or what he says but he is no fool. His buffoonery provides a rather odd but strangely effective political self-preservation mechanism that often distracts opponents or inquisitors from the more important issues of the day. Defining Boris Johnson’s statecraft as little more than politics as the art of distraction may undoubtedly be unfair; suggesting that the public is unable to see beneath the japes and the jests of an old Etonian may be equally unfair; but as more and more people comment on Boris’ Teflon-like ability to shrug-off personal, political and sexual controversies I thought it might be useful to try and make something stick.
This article was originally published on the Oxford University Press blog.
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. His latest book - Defending Politics – is published by Oxford University Press and he was once the victim of ‘the Boris lunge’ (this is where Boris takes an interviewer by surprise by grabbing their list of questions off them before proceeding to select those questions he wishes to answer from the list).