The story of Boris Johnson’s political tenure is, in part, a lesson in the importance of communication.
Towards the end of July, and going through the motions to introduce the government’s no-confidence vote, Johnson sought to defend his record. The speech was predictably fanciful, given the frothy affair with falsehood which has marked his premiership. Yet communication is one area he might have chalked up as a kind of achievement.
Johnson is a good communicator. This was a central premise which lent force to the argument for his original candidacy as leader of the conservative party. It was also, I would suggest, borne out through the election and beyond. Listening to his often bumbling and incoherent speeches, interspersed with the odd burnished phrase, some might contest this claim. Except that’s to overthink it. One of the biggest assets which has served him throughout his political career is simply that most people know who he is. They know who he is because he is a public character in a way that many (in fact, most) politicians aren’t.
If this seems a bit elemental, here’s an analogy. Imagine that politicians in the public eye are works of fiction, and you are their readers. If you were ‘reading’ most of them, unless you were especially earnest, I suspect you wouldn’t get much beyond the first chapter. If you were reading the book of Johnson, you would be carried along by farcical mishaps, flagrant dishonesty, illicit sex and infidelity, and Suetonian political drama – of the electrifying sort that characterised his final downfall.
An immediate response to this might say that I am describing the world of entertainment rather than politics, and a deep trench of serious analysis should divide one from the other. Entertainment is fine as long as it is carefully corralled into the appropriate domain of public life. William Hague, in conversation on the hit podcast The Rest is Politics, made almost exactly this point when he responded to concerns about how Johnson will behave after he leaves office. Hague suggested that those around him should encourage his writing and public persona but channel these talents into a more appropriate avenue of professional conduct.
For his detractors, Johnson’s dog-eaten record of miscreance in a sense comes down to his disregard for the idea that anything – policy, probity, conduct – should be taken too seriously, and can be easily contorted to suit the misadventures of his ego. Leadership in public life demands gravity, reflection, vision and humility – all of which depend on at least a measure of integrity and hard analysis. This is a world to which he is woefully and hopelessly ill-suited. And examples abound.
The Northern Ireland protocol was, in 2019, a plunger which Johnson brandished to unblock the political will of parliament and carried him to a massive electoral victory with the cry ‘Get Brexit Done’. Today, he proposes to unilaterally unpick parts of the protocol which are causing the sort of ‘practical problems’ that occasioned the parliamentary atrophy in the first place, a move which one of his own MPs has described as ‘economically very damaging, politically foolhardy and almost certainly illegal.’
Revelations of parties at No 10 during the Covid lockdown pressured the Prime Minister to tell MPs in early 2021 that ‘all guidance was followed in No 10’. A few days later he told the commons that ‘no Covid rules were broken’. By May of this year the second instalment of Sue Gray’s investigation into the matter found that a total of 83 people attended lockdown ‘gatherings’ and that ‘the way in which they developed was not in line with Covid guidance at the time.’ It now only remains, assuming its investigation goes ahead, for the commons privileges committee to determine whether the Prime Minister knowingly misled parliament.
The details of his final undoing were a tasteless jelly fashioned in a familiar mould. In February 2022, Johnson promoted the MP Chris Pincher to the conservative whips’ office. A little later in the year, Pincher was forced to resign after groping two men at an event in the Carlton Club. It then emerged that Johnson had been made aware of earlier accusations against Pincher at the time of the promotion, and that according to former diplomat Simon Macdonald, Johnson had been told in person about a complaint against Pincher in 2019. Johnson denied he was aware of the allegations, then admitted he was.
In all cases, whether the reasons are a monolithic ego, Machiavellian scheming, or simple incompetence, truth and reality were made to look malleable and subordinate to the PM’s political fortunes. The striking fact however is not that all of this happened, but that it was reasonably predictable.
At the time of the 2019 leadership campaign a story broke about Johnson and his then partner. Neighbours to their London flat called the police after they heard repeated shouting, banging and screaming. Michael Portillo commented on BBC’s This Week that only Boris could generate a story of that sort in the middle of a leadership campaign, and hinted that this was a taste of things to come. And yet Johnson not only survived, but won the contest, thwarted parliament and romped home at the general election. He then survived scandal after scandal. It says something that he survived as long as the Chris Pincher affair.
The reason he can ‘defy the laws of political gravity’ (to the marvel and chagrin of many commentators) is the same reason the party chose him for the job. Most people don’t identify with hard problems and analysis. They are not exercised by the deeper currents of public policy, the course of events in Westminster, constitutional propriety, or even an ability to take the right perceived moral stance on an issue of the moment. They identify with people and places, and Johnson looks more like a person than most of his peers. More than that, he appears to be an exuberant, larger-than-life, magnetic personality who enjoys himself. He channels the medieval spirit of Falstaff, and a saturnalian disdain for puritanical edification and political correctness.
When it comes to public appeal – or for that matter when it comes to any form of relationship – truth is mediated by character rather than analysis. This, I would suggest, is the single biggest misconception that underpins most, if not all, of our public debate; and the attempt to abstract politics into a matter of pure understanding drawn from without is the demolition squad and steamroller which level the landscape and suppress the appearance of any charm.
Analytical tools – statistics, economic data, consultation exercises, polling, focus groups or other arcane instruments of social science, not to mention the law and the more informal rulebook of other governing structures – might be essential to our political life. It would, I imagine, prove difficult to fully grasp rising inflation without some form of economic analysis, and our ever-more sophisticated tools for gathering and synthesising data. Managing a negotiation with a foreign power will necessarily entail mastering the intricacies of particular circumstances and the legal conditions which govern them. For all that, a thoughtless and unfeeling selfishness, even hubris, obtains where a subject looks at any given object and fails to notice their subjectivity, or the conditions from which they survey the problem. Such conditions will vary from subject to subject, and the most basic and humane concession we can make is to recognise that difference.
Yet this is something our politics doesn’t do – or at best it does it very poorly. Its primitive assumption is that everyone engages with an equal capacity to grasp the facts as they are presented to them. Instead, the character of communities, and the people within them, condition how they make sense of the facts, or even the degree to which they are exposed to them. The basic premise of modern behavioural psychology is that people are more likely to get to grips with something where the whole person is invested in the matter – they are, for example, more likely to pursue an analytical conundrum where they feel strongly about it and it resonates with who they are. In the same way, they are more likely to respond to a politician where they can relate to them.
A tendency towards something machine-like and cold has undergirded our politics for centuries. It is, in its broadest outline, the modern state, or Leviathan, that Thomas Hobbes in his great founding work of liberal political thought consciously set out to create. Hobbes on the opening page of Leviathan describes his creation as an ‘artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body’. By ceding individual freedom to the unqualified authority of a sovereign power as the ultimate guarantor of peace and order, Hobbes seeks to overcome the volatile and precarious odds human beings face in their natural state. The sovereign, even where it is counter-intuitively violent and oppressive, is necessary and legitimate. And so calculation rises above the misleading appetites of intuition, and in the same seamless motion, establishes by covenant centralised and absolute power.
The British state is hardly an exact working model of Leviathan, but all the tools I have mentioned – from statistical and social analysis to parliamentary rubric – are in the spirit of the same cold calculation. All of which makes the dominant but lurking character of our liberal politics analytic and aligned to a frightening degree of authority.
Hobbes’ world might be engineered to secure the realm, but pursued without regard for communities, customs and traditions, it also robs it of character. If Leviathan is an artificial man, it begins to look like an autistic automaton, which incentivises that behaviour in those responsible for its smooth-running. If the operation of government is weighted towards rational calculation – and there are good reasons to think that in our day and age it is almost entirely overrun by it – this creates a kind of public wilderness in which the appearance of anyone with some semblance of human characteristics stands out like a neon sign in the desert. Boris Johnson is that sign.
Johnson, in his lite version of populism, exploited the traction of his big public personality for entirely political ends. If some of those around him are to be believed, he and his team were obsessed with PR and managing the media, almost to the cost of anything else, and ‘big dog’ was the biggest tool in their communications strategy. ‘Rhetoric’ or public persuasion, as populists practise it, exploits the territory of a landscape vacated by a view of the world as purely analytic. Trump did something similar, but broke the political mould in a more American way – his ‘success’ depended to a significant extent on sustaining his public image through daily sensationalism. At his zenith, he was probably the best known name on the planet.
But for Johnson, and all populists, rhetoric is unhinged, an exercise in itself with no or little concern for the truth. Instead, it seeks a Faustian pact with the monstrous machine of power our liberal states have forged. Policy is a kind of grammar out of which they fashion the story of their own mythology. Did Johnson really believe in Brexit? Who knows, but his choice at the time of the referendum paved a very clear path to Downing Street, whatever the vote’s outcome. Is Johnson sincere about addressing the politically disenfranchised ‘red wall’ communities whose trust he won at the last election? Or was that a growing policy consensus which provided him with a route to electoral success? Did Johnson care about the plight of Ukraine? Or was it an opportunity to temper the scandals which were threatening to engulf him? The answers to those questions which paint the most cynical and opportunistic picture also reveal an individual who was prepared to say and do anything that would leave a pleasing impression for a shifting array of different public constituencies.
One of the best books ever written about rhetoric is also, and not accidentally, a great work of philosophy and literature. Plato’s Phaedrus guides the eponymous student of rhetoric to make use of it as more than just a ‘useful knack’ of persuading people without any foundation in knowledge or truth. To come alive, rhetoric must understand reality, which means getting to the kernel of things or what Plato calls ‘soul’. A soul grants someone or something their distinctive nature or characteristics, while revealing its origins in a transcending realm of truth. A soul is unique, good, beautiful and an intimation of truth in its fullest and most mysterious sense. For Plato, therefore, truth is revealed through character, the universal through the particular, and the one through the many.
If we read Boris Johnson by the light of Plato a few things stand out. Boris does reveal his character; he does display a personality that has the distinctive mark of an individual, which is especially refreshing next to the ranks of boilerplate politicians who dominate public life. This, as I have suggested, explains why he manages to reach the parts that other public figures don’t and why he was more immune to public scandal. Yet Johnson’s idiosyncratic personality is not grounded in truth. He shows no inclination to understand the particular circumstances of the country he was elected to govern and its many-sided soul of things. Rather, he is fixated on the thrashing beast of modern power. Which makes more for a world of sophistry than philosophy. Johnson and his politics are soulless.
But if that charge sticks, it doesn’t necessarily imply that he is a morally suspect individual who is simply making self-serving choices at the expense of the nation. He is, in part at least, a product of structural forces at work in our politics. Our cold and calculating system of government leaves an open goal for a charismatic figure to exploit, because humans don’t relate to the world through determinate systems and technologies; they relate to the character of particular people, circumstances and places. This is a basic, insurmountable, and fundamentally noble instinct, which the world in which we live oddly devalues.
If my characterisation of our system of government, however fleeting and crude, is loosely correct, it is the distorted inversion of Johnson. Dazzled by the pursuit of a more stable and secure foundation for the polity, it thinks that it has wrestled the truth into a mechanism which has overcome, and placed a necessary restraint on, the distractions of people and their identity. If character is the site of the soul, then our political system is equally soulless and perhaps the politicians who posture, provoke and pervert the truth are all that we deserve.