28.12.2020 Author: Seth Ferris

Boris Johnson: Ridi, Pagliaccio!


Many people have predicted the demise of Boris Johnson, who has fallen many times, only to rise again on a wave of bluster and ignorance. According to some he will finally make one gaffe too many and have to resign. According to others, he will be forced out by his own party when the consequences of Brexit get too serious, and they won’t want a clown any more.

Usually however such concerns are brushed aside by the claim that Boris impregnable because he has a huge parliamentary majority. In effect it is around 90 seats, meaning a lot of his MPs can stay at home and he’ll still win every House of Commons vote. So it’s entirely up to Boris how long he stays – or so it’s said.

The same could have been said of any leader with a comparable majority. Margaret Thatcher probably expected to die in the job, until her own party booted her out because her unbending personality, once an asset, had become a liability when the economic benefits she had brought blew up in her face. Tony Blair was similarly untouchable until the very fact he was created such demand for an eventual succession that he stood down to cash on in his fame, and run away from the Iraq War.

Eventually they all go, no matter how many supporters they have. Why? Because the one thing no one can predict is events. After the rogue trader Nick Leeson was jailed, he declared that there won’t be anyone else like him because “the market always beats you”. Likewise every politician is always beaten by events – no matter how many crises they negotiate, another one will render them irrelevant, and gets them.

Boris has risen to the top by making a joke out of everything. He laughs off his many errors, which others can’t do because a serious error by a serious person is felt to be consistent with their character.

For BoJo the Clown, serious things don’t really exist, except as excuses for soundbites. So he is able to shrug them off, and win the support of others who want to run away from serious issues by taking wilfully simplistic or perverse views about them – immigrants, the EU, economic disaster, the UK’s place in the world, trivial things like that.

But as all comedians find, one day the world changes around them, and they just aren’t funny anymore. People just don’t want to listen, no matter how often you roll out the old winners, how hard you try to find new things to say.

Johnson has got away with a great many things by being a clown instead of a politician. So if we want to see what will happen to him, in this time of Covid, Brexit and no sort of disruption, maybe we shouldn’t be looking at other politicians, even the few that can be compared to him.

He who lives by the joke dies by the joke. Boris is treading a path too many of his peers have already trodden, and the very public which is still supporting him now knows better than he that he is approaching his final act.

Career Trajectories

Pompous Boris may not seem to have a lot in common with George Hoy Booth, known to the world as George Formby. But their career trajectories have more in common than he would care to admit- and more than the long dead Formby would have imagined in his worst nightmares.

Formby’s father, George Snr., had also been a headline act in his day – much like Stanley Johnson, who demonstrated on his own, rather later, entry into parliament how his son had ended up the incarnation of everything that’s wrong with the politicians he claims to despise. It was George Snr. who lent his stage costume to the young Charlie Chaplin, this giving him his iconic tramp character before the younger man had thought of it.

George Jnr. made little impact in the music halls, following directly in his father’s footsteps, until he bought a ukulele – much like “Alex”, as the family still call him, changed his image by going by “Boris”. Rather than being another run of the mill performer eking out a living, the prop transformed him into someone close enough to what people expected to be relatable to, but different enough to be worthy of note, with his cheeky songs, big grin and innocent patter

Formby came to embody a certain character everyone wanted to be – the bumbling inadequate who always comes out on top and always gets the girl. Boris has equally presented himself as the posh anachronism who tells jokes to cover his lack of substance, and puts one over on the boring people who expect everyone else to obey their rules. George had films and records, Boris had the media and then public life, where he could play to a gallery which wanted someone like him to be a harmless idiot.

But even George Formby went into decline after World War Two. The audience which had adopted him as his own still revered him as a great, and do to this day. But he became part of the past, simply because his audience had continued to grow, but wanted him to remain as had always been – regardless of the effect on his own fortunes, and the respect in which his work was held.

Boris has gained, and held his audience, by being one of those who sit above them, but demonstrably acts different. So he can be amongst them, but they still get the blame. Every attack on his own peers is what those outside the magic elite would say, and every wilfully contrary comment, even if people don’t agree with it, makes him a Fifth Columnist trying to undermine his own side, so someone else can make the rules.

All this made Boris Johnson so scary that his party had little choice to make him their leader and Prime Minister. But having no substance of his own, he could only hold his own in the real world if he adopted the worst and most ridiculous policies he could, and then kicked out every Conservative who didn’t agree with him, leaving a collection of venal incompetents about the same calibre as the favourites of Rasputin who dragged down Tsar Nicholas II by being appointed to his ministries.

Already the British are outgrowing many of these chancers, even if they are still being enthused by Boris. His minions may toe-his-line, but don’t have his charisma. This is why they are being held responsible for their failures – they can’t help people lead people to the fantasy land Boris promises because only he could ever live there

Every day brings a new reality which makes Boris look more like a cheap toy whose batteries have run out. Those around him are the product of his jokes. People don’t laugh at their antics any more, and the longer Boris sticks around, the less his jokes and attitude will seem to reflect their concerns.

Tweedledum and Tweedledumber

Of course many comics achieve success with a partner. With the partner gone, their whole image changes, and they find it difficult to either continue as they were, or find a new direction, without their counterpart who represented part of a common dream to the public.

Lou Costello was a big star as part of the hugely successful American double act Abbott and Costello. Although Costello was the “funny one ” and Abbott the “straight man”, their appeal lay in how they interacted – their stars rose and fell together, again as “everyman” characters, bringing different elements to a common persona.

Until recently, Boris had a similar partner – Donald Trump. Sometimes Donald was the serious one, instituting travel bans and firing people who criticised him, while Johnson was joking about Covid numbers and calling people “big girl’s blouse” in parliament. At other times Trump was making stupid comments about building a wall and calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”, whilst Boris was telling people to eat out to help the economy and playing hardball with the EU, as if the EU cared.

Abbott and Costello were conventional, but still large and flawed enough to make the other seem crazily oddball. Like Abbott and Costello, neither Johnson nor Trump would have made an impact with each other’s individual audiences, but together they were everywhere, the inadequacies of the other making the supporters of their man feel better about the whole demented enterprise.

The public grew tired of Abbott and Costello when they were similarly seen everywhere. The routines had worked because they were different, now they were the standard. Eventually they split when they couldn’t be the big stars they needed each other to be – and legal troubles, in their case unpaid taxes, became something they couldn’t joke into insignificance.

Costello was never the same without Abbott because he had to still be Costello, but without the context Abbott had given him. BoJo is now finding that without his orange faced partner, there is no one to make his failings look like virtues in the eyes of those who don’t get the other guy.

The vandalism of Brexit, designed to gain a posthumous credibility for Boris’ newspaper columns, made some sense when Trump was in the White House, expressing similar attitudes. The UK really does have more in common with the US when they are both run by people few other countries would ever elect, and who are proud of that distinction, as they think it makes them all the cleverer.

But where is Boris’ straight man now? Joe Biden is everything Johnson and Trump claim to be against. The US still has a “Special Relationship” with the UK, but it is the UK of black and white films, funny accents and incomprehensible traditions, where Americans do as they please, and old fashioned Brits do as they’re told.

Biden may be more respectful of Johnson and his show than Trump ever was, but they will never be more than a harmless eccentricity to a US which has no need to import anything from the UK in preference to anyone else. He won’t understand Johnson’s jokes, and neither will Brits when there’s no one else in the world who can make them seem even funnier by comparison.

Who Told You You were Funny?

The UK has a biennial TV fundraising show called Comic Relief. Since 1988 it has raised millions of pounds for charity projects in the developing world and the UK, and also showcased the talents of the comedians who perform on the show in order to persuade people to donate.

At one time comedians of all traditions and styles participated, with jokes of all ages. Soon however the old guard, and the different, were squeezed out of the show, where they had always looked uncomfortable, leaving to it a trendy mafia considered not particularly funny by a sizeable chunk of the population.

The more traditional comics still had an audience in particular venues. So many people asked: why is it that only a certain “alternative” crowd have taken over comedy on TV, and all its political and social dimensions? Does this really reflect audience taste?

There used to be other political comedians, of all shades. If you wanted something different, you had the very fat Liberal Cyril Smith, now a disgraced child abuser, who could always be relied upon for an outrageous quote for the TV. There were Labour figures such as Manny Shinwell, a former failed minister who became a fiery elder statesman who subtitled his autobiography “My First Ninety-Six Years”. There was the Reverend Ian Paisley, the forthright Northern Irish Protestant leader whose views seemed ludicrous on the mainland, and Conservatives like John Stokes and Gerald Nabbaro, so reactionary they seemed made of starch, or a tweed suit come to life.

BoJo’s rise to the top on the back of his bluster used to be evidence that he was a breath of fresh air, a new sort of comedian the public wanted. Now he is the only comedian. No one else captures the imagination of those who don’t want to take serious things seriously. N one else is there to capture the imagination, because the rise of Boris has made them all irrelevant, even if they and their views still have an audience.

Spin Doctor Sacked

Boris has now sacked his chief gag writer, the spin doctor Dominic Cummings, whose jokes everyone inside the system was forced to laugh at, even if they didn’t find them funny. Apparently Dominic wasn’t able to make him look good any more. But still Boris will never make Brexit work, still he can’t develop a proper Covid plan, still he can’t actually sponsor economic regeneration because he has surrounded himself with people who hate the public, just because they are always willing to tell him how funny he is.

Every show has to have a final curtain. BoJo will crack the same old jokes forever, and try and find new ones. Some will always treasure his memory. But the same words won’t be funny when his audience already know them, and they won’t be about anything they are interested in, now they’ve embraced what he was talking about, and thus made it part of their serious worlds.

The world doesn’t care about the things Boris jokes about any more. It cares about everyday life, and the threats to it, not the alternative reality of Boris’ EU or Trump’s Mexican.

The further the UK gets from the EU and all it is alleged to be, the less that will impact on voters – and with no partner to be a foil, no image that means anything to people and no way to justify his pre-eminence, people will hear Boris’ words, but they will have no meaning.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.