Whistle Down the Wind: Boris Johnson and the Language of Politics
“I am not by any means an ultra-Eurosceptic. In some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union. If we did not have one, we would invent something like it.” - Boris Johnson, addressing the House of Commons in 2003
When Boris Johnson succeeded Ken Livingstone in becoming Mayor of London in 2008 many had not taken him seriously. But this small step, if not a small job - being the leader of the Greater London Authority is no minor role- in the direction of respectability was to eventually lead to his ascent to the top job - Prime Minister.
There are differing opinions as to how well this stint as the Mayor went but one of the more telling comments was to be found in a July 2019 article in The Guardian.
Johnson is referred to by Jenny Jones, a deputy mayor under Livingstone's administration who found herself as a London assembly member during Johnson’s tenure, as; "Charming and funny, and good to have a cup of coffee with, but none of us trust him.
“And even people who work for him get very edgy when you say things like that because they mostly agree. He is a charming companion, but you couldn’t trust him to feed your cat if you were away one evening.”
Perhaps the most memorable moment in his entire two-term reign was getting stuck on a zip wire during the 2012 Olympic Games. His capacity to survive a typically blunder-filled publicity event practically unscathed became something of a running theme of his political career.
Johnson had been no stranger to controversy even in his earliest job roles. Indeed he was sacked rather unceremoniously from his first journalism role at The Times, for falsifying a quotation. The issue of trust that Jenny Jones had mentioned was there at the start.
This propensity for writing or uttering untruths, or at least perceived untruths, is something that has continued. As he can talk his way both into and out of trouble. Racist remarks have dogged him, with numerous questionable comments and statements put out during his various stints in the media.
As editor of The Spectator, Johnson was accused of allowing an article to be published that made derogatory comments about intelligence that included "Orientals ... have larger brains and higher IQ scores. Blacks are at the other pole." Even if it is editorial policy to allow contrary opinions to be expressed, the buck for a statement like that has to lie at his office door.
Of course, the most perplexing thing of all is that none of this matters. Johnson has promised to deliver on Brexit and for the majority of his fan base, it is all that matters. Even if the ideology behind it is morally empty and the execution is botched. Even if it proves to reduce the country as a financial power and leave thousands of people worse off. The promise of that idyllic other-world, harking back to a long-deceased empire, is more exciting to a large proportion of the population. That pledge of increased immigration restrictions and the discussion of reclaiming our sovereignty, despite it having always been at our finger-tips, with the country having far fewer restrictions on its EU membership than most.
For Boris Johnson? As soon as he senses the tide is turning he'll be off again. Probably into a lucrative career as a bumbling stand-up comedian of sorts- his default public persona taken to its natural end. The quotation about the EU to the commons almost acts as his own life manifesto. If he cannot immediately get what he wants, he becomes a fan of the thing that will get him there - in this case, Brexit. Does he genuinely want the UK to leave the EU? It's impossible to know for certain.
But you sense that with Covid 19 taking such a torrid toll on this country, and the blame arguably lying squarely at his feet, that the public won't take as kindly to him playing the fool for money. For every video clip of him hosting Have I Got News For You, there is now a less amusing clip of him looking distracted, dishevelled, and deplorable as the host of the daily press conference. You sense the winds of change if, perhaps, too late for so many.