How did Boris Johnson, a man often written-off as an upper class buffoon, manage to win a huge victory at the British General Election? Toby Young, a journalist who has known Boris for 36 years, explains that beneath the jokey, bumbling exterior is a shrewd political operator who knows how to win elections.
At last week’s British election, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won more seats than at any time since 1983, at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s popularity. Coincidentally, 1983 was the first time I set eyes on Boris when we were both first-year students at Oxford. In the 36 years since — a period of time in which I’ve got to know him reasonably well — he hasn’t really changed.
He was holding forth at the dispatch box of the Oxford Union, the world famous debating society. With his huge mop of blond hair, his tie askew and his shirt escaping from his trousers, Boris looked like an overgrown schoolboy. Yet with his imposing physical build, his thick neck and his broad, Germanic forehead, there was also something of Nietzsche’s Übermensch about him. You could imagine him in lederhosen, wandering through the Black Forest with an axe over his shoulder, looking for ogres to kill.
This same combination — a state of advanced dishevelment and an almost tangible will to power — was even more pronounced in his way of speaking.
He began to advance an argument in what sounded like a parody of the high style in British politics — theatrical, dramatic, self-serious — when, a few seconds in, he appeared to completely forget what he was about to say. He looked up, startled — Where am I? — and asked the packed chamber which side he was supposed to be on: ‘What’s the motion, anyway?’
I’d been to enough Union debates at this point to know just how mercilessly the crowd could punish those who came before them unprepared. But Boris’s chaotic, scatter-brained approach had the opposite effect. The motion was deadly serious, yet almost everything that came out of his mouth provoked gales of laughter.
While the rest of us were works-in-progress, Boris was the finished article. He was an instantly recognisable character from the comic tradition in English letters: a pantomime toff. Yet at the same time fizzing with vim and vinegar, proclaiming he would one day be Prime Minister.
He wasn’t the only Oxford student to possess such outsized ambition, but in his case you felt it might actually happen. He had an electrifying, charismatic presence of a kind I’d only read about in books before.
Our mutual friend Lloyd Evans put it well.
‘He’s a war leader,’ he told Boris’s biographer. ‘He is one of the two or three most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. You just feel he’s going somewhere. People just love him. They enjoy going with him and they enjoy being led.’
Lloyd and I were impressed by Boris – we recognized he was a born leader – but not everyone shares that view. Indeed, until last week it was still the minority view. Most people, including shrewd observers of the Britain’s political life, have consistently underestimated him. They see a buffoon rather than a shrewd political operator.
Often, people who have a low opinion of Boris’s abilities change their minds when they see him close up. That was true of the leaders of the countries that make up the European Union, particularly Emmanuel Macron.
After Boris had engaged in his first bout of shuttle diplomacy, unleashing a charm offensive on the most important decision-makers in the EU, the attitude towards him in Brussels began to shift.
According to the Times, European governments concluded that it had been a mistake to back the people trying to overturn the result of the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, like the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Shortly after that, a decision was made in the chancelleries of Europe to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement that Theresa May had spent two years negotiating and which was hated on all sides.
The new agreement, which will now come into effect on January 31st, was marginally more favourable to the UK and enabled Boris to unite his party. Had it not been for that deal, it’s unlikely he would have led his party to such a resounding victory last Thursday.
The Conservatives oft-repeated slogan during the six-week election campaign was ‘Get Brexit Done’ and Boris successfully portrayed his political opponents as being the reason for the ‘dither and delay’ of the past three years. There is some truth in that, but the irony is that Boris actually managed to win a Parliamentary vote on his deal in October and might have been able to get Brexit done without having to fight an election.
He decided to gamble instead. He and his chief advisor Dominic Cummings recognized that the Tories would be more likely to win an election before the Brexit drama was concluded because the forces of Remain – those fighting to keep Britain in the EU – were more divided than the forces of Leave. Boris knew that the people who’d voted to Leave in Labour’s working class heartlands in Wales, the Midlands and the North of England were disenchanted with Labour’s ambivalence about Brexit and if he fought an election on a pledge to get it done they would vote Conservative.
And so it proved to be. Labour lost seats in a thick wedge of constituencies known as the ‘Red Wall’, including Tony Blair’s old seat of Sedgefield. One of the more starting bits of data to emerge in the aftermath of the election is that in the 50 constituencies with the highest proportion of blue collar workers, the Conservative vote went up by an average of 4.7 per cent, while in the 50 constituencies with the lowest proportion of blue collar workers, the Conservative vote went down by an average of -2.9 per cent.
But it wasn’t just Brexit that enabled Boris to win 66 seats in the election. In The Art of Donald McGill, George Orwell’s 1941 essay about the creator of saucy seaside postcodes, Orwell describes a conflict at the heart of our national character – one we fought a civil war over – and it is this that captures Boris’s appeal.
On the one hand are the pointy-heads, the scolds, always wagging their fingers and pursing their lips, constantly on the look-out for moral failings. Orwell compares them to Don Quixote, the high-minded hero of Cervantes’ novel. He contrasts this archetype with Sancho Panza, Quixote’s comic foil, and when listing the squire’s down-to-earth qualities he could easily be describing Boris: ‘He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul. His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with “voluptuous” figures.’
It is that Saturnalian streak in the British character that Boris appeals to and partly helps to explain his popularity in the ‘Red Wall’ seats that changed hands at the election — such as Rother Valley, a seat that Labour had held for 101 years.
Boris is a familiar British character whom many people still feel an instinctive affection for: the lovable rogue, the man with the holiday in his eye. He’s the guy that tries to persuade the barman to serve one more round of drinks after time has been called, the 14-year-old who borrows his father’s BMW at two o’clock in the morning and takes it up to a 100mph on the motorway with his friends shrieking in the back.
He’s Falstaff in Henry IV, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night demanding more cakes and ale. He’s a Donald McGill postcard.
Boris’s Labour opponents have never understood this aspect of his appeal. Indeed, they’re convinced that his politically incorrect sense of humour is an electoral handicap.
When he stood as the Conservative candidate in the London mayoral election in 2008, his Labour rival Ken Livingstone dredged up everything ‘offensive’ he had ever written — an embarrassment of riches. No need to employ any opposition researchers; it was all just a Google search away. This was ‘offence archeology’ of a kind that has become all too common in politics, but Boris proved immune to this line of attack — then as now.
But last week the British people stuck two fingers up at the ‘boiled rabbits of the Left’, as George Orwell called them, and made it clear they don’t give a stuff about the ‘offensive’ things Boris has said in the past.
One of the reasons the mud never sticks is because Boris is so good at straddling the line between sincerity and insincerity — he can always wriggle out of taking responsibility for whatever it is that’s upset people. Sometimes he apologises, but always with a mischievous glint in his eye.
There’s something quintessentially British about this — what the anthropologist Kate Fox calls ‘The Importance of Not Being Earnest’. As many people have pointed out, Boris can’t be accused of taking things too seriously.
So what does the future hold? One of Boris’s great triumphs at this election was to harness the potentially destructive forces of populism – the same forces that led the British people to reject the EU three years ago – and transform them into something positive and good-humoured. The most alienated sections of the electorate have decided to put their trust in Boris, not just to get Brexit done, but also to improve conditions for the laest well off. He has forged a coalition between the most successful members of our society and the least, recalling the same alliance that Disraeli managed to assemble in the 19th Century. If he can keep that coalition together – which requires him not just to invest in public services, but to regenerate the economy in Britain’s post-industrial rust belt – he will prove to be a transformative leader on the same scale as Margaret Thatcher.
Toby Young, is currently the London associate editor at Quilette and columnist at The Spectator.