Why is Boris Johnson Prime Minister? For many exasperated people, who have never recovered from their shock at the outcome of the 2016 referendum, this is a truly baffling question. How can a serious country have such a seemingly non-serious person at its head, they ask. Others feel it as a product of privilege, whose character Woosterish is a throwback to a bygone era. His most bitter enemies see him as a wolf disguised as Saint Bernard: as ruthless in crushing the faces of the poor as his populism is sinister.
Whether they see him as a clumsy buffoon, a borner toffish, or a dangerous demagogue, the anti-Boris squad is set in motion in disgust after yesterday’s speech in Manchester. Some of them would no doubt love his head on a spade stick, as the centerpiece of a macabre display of history’s greatest villains, just as Madame Tussaud poured waxes of guillotined heads in Terror. They follow up on his childish aspiration to be “king of the world”, or on his harmless dependence on classical allusions, as if that made him a wicked Roman emperor, straight out of the current Nero exhibition at the British Museum. In their fantasy of conservative iniquity, Boris makes jokes as London burns down.
In the real world, moreover, such extreme verbal hostility has real consequences. Ask Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, who was harassed along with his wife Betsy by the far left and hit on the head with a traffic cone. Police took the assault in broad daylight on the streets of Manchester seriously and arrested five people, but the hateful comments about the victim on social media were outrageous. In recent years, we are more familiar with attacks on politicians by Islamist and far-right thugs, but the far left is also capable of violence. Democracy and its institutions – including party conferences – are impoverished if our elected officials cannot mingle with the demos (that is, us) without fear of serious bodily harm, or worse.
Back to the question: why is Boris the PM? Any impartial observer who has watched his conference speech, whether in person, on TV, or online, would have to admit that it was a refined performance to say the least. In truth, however, it was much more than that. From start to finish, he was a leader in top form. Technically, he effortlessly packed twice as much in 45 minutes as Sir Keir Starmer (mercilessly taunted as “Captain Hindsight”) managed to do during his 90 minutes of boredom at Brighton this week. last.
What Johnson can do like no one else in politics is curate an argument, soften it with humor, and make it eloquently memorable. The vision he presented yesterday was of a nation emerging from decades of low wages, low skills and low productivity, all made possible by the importation of cheap labor.
Ironically, the new social contract made possible by our regained freedom of maneuver should mean that in the future Britain will look more like Germany: better paid, better educated and more productive. Boris le Brexiteer proposes to make our economy more than less European. Hence the increase in taxes to pay for better health and social care – as the Germans already benefit from, although we are far from imitating their insurance-based system. Hence also the promise of better transport, housing and communications infrastructure – all of which tend to be better across the Channel, if not the Irish Sea. He even found the time to discuss roadside facilities for heavy truck drivers, so that they no longer have to “urinate in the bushes”. Leveling up turns out to be synonymous with Teutonic efficiency. The only thing missing from his vocabulary was Vorsprung durch Technik. There were, however, a lot of upbeat details about British entrepreneurship, scientific prowess and some of all “values”, of which the supreme example was the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, uniquely distributed across the world at the price. costing.
Boris has secure contact with his audience. Not for him, Sajid Javid’s clumsy demand that families should care for their own people with dementia, rather than depending on the state – as if millions of us weren’t already doing so. Instead, the Prime Minister showed empathy for those whose affliction prevented them from passing anything on to their children. He was also sympathetic to Generation Rent, promising new homes for the heroes of the pandemic.
One group, however, seems to have taken his exhortations personally: business. From Next’s Lord Wolfson to Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin, there is a chorus of outrage at the suggestion that they need to dig deeper into their pockets, rather than allowing low-paid staff to be subsidized by the taxpayer. Higher energy costs, higher NI employer contributions, supply shortages and inflationary pressures mean that profit margins are low.
Now here is a prime minister who claims to worship in the sanctuary of capitalism sounding like an old-fashioned Marxist: nothing is too good for working people. No wonder the Downing Street Drinks Course doesn’t feel loved. “PM hit by corporate backlash,” the Times headline read.
Yet this upheaval in reality reveals the genius of the one who provoked it. Being denigrated by the bosses will do no harm to Boris in the country. And the captains of industry will get over it, because they have nowhere to go. There is no Peter Mandelson on Keir Starmer’s elbow, eager to whisper in their ear that there is nothing wrong with being “filthy rich” as long as they pay their taxes. And some of them might really adjust their mindset a bit, especially when it comes to tapping offshore havens to fund absurdly lavish lifestyles. Once again, the German model is relevant: even billionaires avoid conspicuous consumption there. Lidl Tories loves German supermarkets because there are low prices and no frills. That’s not to say they don’t like Waitrose too, when they can afford it.
Boris’ genius is also evident when he reaches parts other politicians can’t even imagine, where aspiration meets reality. The more difficult everyday life is for most people, the more they need someone to look up to the horizon, to flatter their accomplishments and make them smile. Hence the appeal to the “British spirit”, the lines of Gray’s Elegy and the joke on “Cruella de Vil QC” which would have minimized the dognapping. The way he played with the audience, recalling that the poet lamented the lost opportunities of illiterate young people and asking where the elegy had been written: all of this allowed him to tell a story, a story in which Stoke Poges somehow symbolized this spirit. It was a reminder that he hadn’t forgotten the stalwart Tories, those county sans-culottes who staged an uprising in the Chesham and Amersham byelections last summer.
The truth is, Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister because he is currently the best man for the job. We might be on top Boris now, but it feels like (almost certainly an illusion) that this Balliol boy is dominating the stage almost without trying. Politics may be the art of the possible, as Bismarck said, but the real skill is to make people believe that they can achieve what they hitherto thought impossible. Boris masters this art. No one else comes close.
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