Foolish, but no fool: Boris Johnson and the art of politics
By Matthew Flinders
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.
The news that receives the least attention arguably tells us the most about contemporary politics and society. Therefore, the fact a recent Appeal Court decision – that it was in the ‘public interest’ for people to know Boris Johnson had fathered a child in 2009 – was met with little or no public outcry or debate 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 appears to be one set of 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 are, 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, 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’. However, the danger of this interpretation 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 is value in looking a little deeper at someone who 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 his capacity for political survival and 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 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. What was immediately striking was the manner in which he 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 like a conductor on a podium, and play them he did. Yet, 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 master-class in political oratory and theatre but little in terms of ‘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 be unfair; suggesting that the public is unable to see beyond the japes 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 tomake something stick.
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance at the University of Sheffield. 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). Author of Defending Politics (2012), you can find Matthew Flinders on Twitter @PoliticalSpike and read more of Matthew Flinders’s blog posts here.
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Image credit: Boris Johnson. Photo by Adam Procter, 2006. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.