Matthew Flinders

 

In his brilliant new book Who Enters Politics and Why? James Weinberg provides possibly the most sophisticated analysis of why some people decide to stand for office and others, quite simply, do not.

 

His research discovers that when it comes to their basic human values politicians really are ‘different’. Having spent the year reading just about every biography ever written about Boris Johnson, I have come to the conclusion about why he’s so ‘very different’ to your average politician.

 

With COVID-19 causing chaos, and Christmas on the horizon, could it be that the Prime Minister’s biggest challenge has little to do with the common questions concerning his trustworthiness and competence – issues that, if we are honest, have always dogged his career – and more to do with his willingness to disappoint?

 

Boris has always been a larger than life figure on the stage of political pantomime. Whether hanging from a zip wire, waving Cornish pasties or falling in rivers, he is the ultimate entertainer. To the annoyance of his opponents, the public appear to vote for him not on the basis of his performance or policies but simply because he’s funny.

 

He knows this. His bouncing buffoonery and love of whiff-whaff are all part of a carefully calibrated performative act: the art of distraction, played by the clown who is actually the master. Populism is a political strategy, as the academic and author Ben Moffitt has illustrated, that tends to be steeped in drama and in this sense the ‘disaffected democrats’ and ‘critical citizens’ who have succumbed to is temptations are themselves bound into a certain sense of silent complicity.

 

The problem is that politics is not always fun. It cannot make ‘all sad hearts glad’, as Bernard Crick once wrote. One of the paradoxes of a healthy democracy is that politicians will on some occasions be forced to take unpopular decisions.

 

The relationship between politics, popularity and populism is undoubtedly complex, but Covid-19 presents a deep challenge to any politician whose ambition is only matched by their need to please. And this is the core psychological trait that when it comes to understanding ‘Boris’ology’ which has been overlooked.

 

It is almost impossible to read books like Andrew Gimson’s The Adventures of Boris Johnson, or Sonia Purnell’s Just Boris, and not come away with the feeling that Boris is an incredibly vulnerable chap whose confidence and chutzpah veils a profound sense of insecurity. This is the pantomime pathos that needs to be acknowledged.

 

The tale of blond ambition is at one and the same time as impressive and aggressive as it is quite lost and lonely. ‘Merry England craves entertainment’, Gimson notes, ‘and Boris provides it’. The flip side is the ferocity with which those who understand the reality of politics seeks to rip away Boris’s mask.

 

As Matthew Parris, himself a former Conservative MP, wrote in The Times: “Incompetence is not funny. Policy vacuum is not funny. Administrative sloth is not funny. Breaking promises is not funny. A careless disregard for the truth is not funny. Creeping ambition in a jester’s hat is not funny.” That was March 2016, and the focus of that diatribe is now Prime Minister.

 

Which brings us to Covid, and Christmas and, if not cancellation, then potentially tight control. When lockdown was first introduced this year, many Muslims were angry that it overlapped with the beginning of Eid, with some even questioning if the same restrictions would have been brought forward if Christmas were at stake.

 

But that is now exactly the issue that the Government must face, and it could well be the issue that defines Boris’s premiership. Can the political puppy that needs to be loved play the Grinch who steals Christmas for the greater good of the public?

 

‘Boris does not do bad news,’ Sonia Purnell quotes one of his aides as suggesting when asked why Boris so often seems to disappear from the airwaves. His skill at ducking interviews when political boils need to be lanced has stimulated a healthy market for ‘Where’s Boris?’ books that simply underlines the childlike qualities of our Prime Minister’s personality.

 

The challenge he now faces is having to grow up. Heading into the winter and with the coronavirus statistics heading north, it’s ridiculous that Boris recently hinted that the ‘rule of six’ could be relaxed for Christmas.

 

Asked if families of five would not be allowed to have their grandparents over for Christmas, the Prime Minister told ITV: “We’re doing everything we can to make sure Christmas for everybody is as normal as possible.” While other ministers try and hold the line, Boris cannot resist the pressure to please.

 

Boris Johnson has played this card before. Back in July he spoke of plans for ‘a significant return to normality’ by Christmas but with less than 75 days to go and the challenges of ‘containing and controlling’ the virus becoming clearer maybe the time has come for a slightly different message.

 

Christmas 2020 is not going to be normal because, even if a vaccine has been discovered or the virus somehow subdued, the immediate economic impact on those that have lost their jobs or businesses will not disappear. Even Boris’s admission that ‘it’s going to continue to be bumpy through to Christmas, it may even be bumpy beyond’ fails to capture the scale of the challenge.

 

Politics is all about the careful management of public expectations, but when it comes to Covid and Christmas, Boris may be well advised to dampen down rather than ‘talk up’ the public’s festive thoughts about enjoying a ‘normal’ Christmas.

 

Learning to ‘under-promise but then over-supply’ would be a sensible strategy for Boris Johnson to adopt on any issue, but then again playing the Grinch is simply not his style.

 

 

Author biography

Matthew Flinders is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and a former President of the Political Studies Association. This article was first published on by the The Yorkshire Post and has been reposted with the permission of the author. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr.