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It is one of the curiosities of this inside-out age that Donald Trump is loved by conspiracists, even though he is a leader – at last! – who embodies of all their worst fears. He really does hate them, he really is plotting against them, and he really is lying to them, in multiple and increasingly wicked and baroque ways.
Searching for the lesser ironies native to the UK, we might alight on the puzzle that Boris Johnson is beloved of many who can’t wait to point out that “facts don’t care about your feelings” – and yet is himself incapable of serving up difficult facts without endless reference to how it’s all making him feel. Is the prime minister in the business of making new year’s resolutions? If so he might consider trying to develop a stiff upper lip this year. It looks like we’re going to need it.
Should Johnson fail to toughen up and take himself in hand – a locked-on certainty, given the form book – then we are condemned to endure what might well be the worst months of the pandemic thus far, led by someone whose first thought seems always to be for his own emotions. “I hate having to take these decisions …”, “I deeply regret having to do this …”, “I do this with a heavy heart …” Once you’ve noticed the tic you can’t stop hearing it. If only he’d take back control of himself.
I can no longer remember any Boris Johnson podium address that wasn’t riven with subconscious invitations to consider the real victim in all this: him. No matter what you’ve been through, please do take more than a moment to consider the heartaches and ballaches visited upon a man who simply wanted to be world king, but would settle for being the kind of prime minister who smiled and drove diggers through polystyrene walls – yet now has to deal with all this shit in his in-tray instead. Of course, there is the odd bright spark. Johnson would have enjoyed being told by Bill Cash during Wednesday’s trade deal debate that he was like both Alexander the Great and Churchill. Even if that is like being told you make a lot of sense by Mrs Rochester.
But mainly, we are forever being subjected to self-dramatising speeches about the latest virus measures he hates, to which the only dignified response is: I couldn’t care less how it all makes you feel. You’re the prime minister. The people listening are the ones you’re supposed to lead, not your psychotherapist.
Was this the way with the PM’s noted idol and supposed political lodestar, Winston Churchill? I’m afraid I haven’t Johnson’s Churchill biography to hand – though of course, I never permit myself to be more than four feet away from Sir Richard Evans’s majestic review of it. (Sample blast: “The Germans did not capture Stalingrad, though this book claims they did.”)
But even without this canonical text to check against, I think we can be sure that Churchill did not feel the need to deliver all his wartime announcements laced with frequent expressions of how he was handling the whole thing of having to deliver all these wartime announcements.
“I hate having to be the one who suggests we shall fight them on the beaches … I deeply regret having to indicate we may be required to fight them on the landing grounds … Nobody likes being the one whose job it is to announce we shall never surrender …” It is fair to say that Churchill was not unburdened by self-regard, yet he seems to have realised that what the people really needed to hear in their hour of need was not how it was all making HIM feel.
Inevitably, the prime minister’s needy vacillation has proved highly transmissible among his ministers. Gavin Williamson has spent much of the latter half of this week explaining his chaotic and belated actions on schools with the words “no one wants to be making these decisions”. And yet, I bet there are people who would quite want to be secretary of state for education, and to make those requisite decisions, so perhaps Gavin could stand aside for them? Perhaps Johnson will eventually steel himself to tell Williamson – with deep regret and a heavy heart, no doubt – that he is being moved on from a department he has turned into a full-spectrum clusterfuck for a year now. Until then, the self-dramatisation continues. As you may know, Williamson prominently displays a bullwhip on his desk. This is the version of Indiana Jones where our hero never beats the boulder hurtling down the tunnel behind him, and the mere act of reaching back for his hat causes the loss of both his arm and the educational prospects of an entire generation of children.
Speaking of touches of affectation, when the prime minister comes through the No 10 double doors to announce close to a thousand deaths, as he has twice this week, it can be seen that this 56-year-old man has nonetheless still taken the trouble to mess up his hair just before. What felt mildly excruciating in pre-corona times seems truly grotesque when persisted with today. The podium turns themselves betray even more weirdly skewed priorities. A couple of weeks ago, a shielding and frightened member of the public asked a question in which she said she had already lost two loved ones to Covid. Clearly incapable of feeling compassion for anyone other than himself, Johnson declined to express any, and handed the question over to Chris Whitty.
The reason all this is particularly important is because it tells us so much of why our pandemic story has unfolded the way it has. Time and again, Boris Johnson has so deeply regretted even the prospect of having to do difficult things that he hasn’t done them, meaning he has had to do even more regrettable things later. He seems most comfortable casting himself as forever the passive victim of events as opposed to someone who should be out in front of them, shaping them as decisively as possible. A fascinating article by the pollster James Johnson this week charted the PM’s descent in the focus groups over the course of the past year. “As yet another inevitable decision was finally made,” he reported, “people came to think more and more that the man who was meant to lead them was following them instead.”
Buck up, toughen up, show a stiff upper lip – I’m sure there’s some archive Boris Johnson column out there lamenting that these are now deemed inappropriate responses by “the PC brigade”. Either way, I am happy to oblige him by considering them easily the most suitable exhortations in this particular case. For God’s sake, prime minister – do man up.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: With a heavy heart, Johnson will always remind us who the real victim is: him | Boris Johnson