Thursday 19 September 2019

No laughing matter: Boris and the politics of entertainment

As a professional buffoon settles in at No 10 Downing Street, is politics becoming an arm of the entertainment industry? Kim Bielenberg reports

Evolution: Boris Johnson on the steps of 10 Downing Street as prime minister
Evolution: Boris Johnson on the steps of 10 Downing Street as prime minister
Jester: a Boris Johnson protester this week. Photo by Henry Nicholls
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Watching the new British prime minister sauntering down Downing Street, one could not escape the thought that Boris Johnson could not have got to Number 10 without making people laugh.

And although there are noticeable differences between the two characters, the same is also true of Donald Trump.

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In Johnson's case, tickling the funny bone of the electorate has always been deliberate, and with Trump, the moments of comedy have been mostly unintentional.

It has long been said that politics is show business for ugly people, but in the past, acting the clown close to the corridors of power had its limitations. You could only rise to a certain height before falling away.

Jester: a Boris Johnson protester this week. Photo by Henry Nicholls
Jester: a Boris Johnson protester this week. Photo by Henry Nicholls

Jokey banter might have won backbench politicians places on chat shows and radio panels, but a certain level of earnestness, experience, and even hard-won expertise was required to reach the top. The court jester was never expected to become the king.

Getting elected in the first place was mostly down to hard graft, rather than any talent to amuse. But that has changed over the past decade.

As the English commentator Matthew d'Ancona observed this week, Johnson has understood that in the digital age of viral videos and Instagram posts, voters are behaving more like an audience consuming entertainment than a civically engaged electorate.

On recent balmy evenings, half the country seemed to be tuned into Love Island, while the other half was wondering who would get booted out of Boris's Big Brother house.

Johnson realised early on that artful buffoonery was no longer just an aspect of his political persona. It was his political persona, just as the comically clipped pin-striped shtick the newly-appointed Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg gives him his political identity and has been a key to his success.

According to d'Ancona, while the rest of Westminster operated within the structures of 20th-century plodding political discourse, Johnson worked on his material like a stand-up preparing for a Netflix special.

Butt of jokes

True to form, in his victory speech, Johnson couldn't resist a joke: "I know some wag has already pointed out that Deliver, United and Defeat was not the perfect acronym for an election campaign, since unfortunately it spells DUD, but they forgot the final E my friends, E for energise. I say to all the doubters: DUDE, we are going to energise the country!"

Andrew Russell, professor of politics at Liverpool University, told Review: "The joking around has always been central to Boris's brand."

While Trump went from business and television entertainment into politics, Johnson was a journalist and politician who cultivated celebrity as a man who could entertain an audience.

He was a regular on the satirical game show Have I Got News For You, where he was the butt of many of the jokes. But who is laughing now?

"By appearing as a game-show guest and host he could show that he was not a normal politician, and that he could be fun. That helped to insulate him from normal criticism," says Russell, who points to the famous quote of Donald Trump, where he claimed: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters."

In a way, Johnson has also shown himself to be almost bulletproof as a politician.

He could be fired from two jobs for lying, have a messy private life with two broken marriages, and make spectacular blunders as foreign secretary after he was appointed in 2016.

An unguarded comment by Johnson as foreign secretary in 2017 is said to have led to the continued detention of a British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran. But because he makes people laugh, he has always been forgiven.

The public and the media may have laughed along with Boris, but not everyone is happy.

As the Daily Mirror complained in a headline on its front page this week after his election: "BORIS JOHNSON, PRIME MINISTER - IT'S REALLY NOT FUNNY ANYMORE"

The rise of the politician as entertainer is not confined to the UK and the US. Although he stepped aside as leader last year, comedian Beppe Grillo remains an influential figure in the Five Star Movement, which is in a coalition government in Italy.

Ukraine recently elected a comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, as its president, and after elections last weekend there were reports that he might go into coalition with a rock star.

We might like to think that we are above this phenomenon, and that elections in Ireland are won or lost purely on the basis of policies that are teased out by the electorate, but personality politics is growing in importance.

At the recent European elections, candidates with a distinctive identity and hint of celebrity seemed to be at an advantage. Maria Walsh, the first openly lesbian woman to be crowned Rose of Tralee, surprised some pundits by winning a second seat for Fine Gael with little or no political experience.

Other winners included the distinctive pink-shirted ex-developer Mick Wallace, and Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, both unconventional politicians with a knack for grabbing attention.

Although he failed in the European elections, Peter Casey enjoyed a remarkable surge in popularity in the 2018 presidential election by making controversial comments about Travellers, and eventually finished second with 23pc of the vote. He was much less abrasive than Trump, but there was the same knockabout manner, cheeky chappy persona - and a tendency to avoid polished political messages.

While Trump honed his celebrity as the big boss man on The Apprentice, Casey had originally come to public attention on Dragons' Den.

At his rallies, Trump likes to egg the crowd on like a pantomime dame or a tag wrestler at the edge of the ring: as he condemned the Democrat congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somalian refugee, at a recent event, the mob shouted: "Send her back!".

And as he spoke about Hillary Clinton in his election campaign, they shouted: "Lock her up!"

Johnson arrived in Downing Street on Wednesday after his audience with Queen Elizabeth with a Churchillian flourish - bombarding his audience with breezy and blustering sound bites, rather than indicating a clear path through the Brexit mess - "Never mind the backstop. The buck stops here!" he almost hollered.

He promised that the "doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters" were going to get it wrong again. It was a barnstorming performance, devoid of substance. Boris had almost achieved his childhood ambition to be the "world king", but as he prepared to enter Number 10, the doubters were still out in force.

"Working a crowd is very different from working a government," the constitutional historian Peter Hennessy told the BBC. "He's a remarkable attack journalist, he's a kind of written version of a shock jock, I've always thought. And you can't govern that way."

As commentators have pointed out, in policies and style, Trump and Johnson have plenty of differences. While Trump has hardly been known to read a book, Johnson gives the impression of being erudite and does not wear his classical education at Eton and Oxford lightly.

While Trump has been keen to put "America First", Johnson has championed the idea of "global Britain", trading across the world, and when he was mayor of London, he promoted the British capital as an outward-looking cosmopolitan city.

But like Trump, Johnson has been known to make undiplomatic, off-colour comments about a wide variety of individuals, groups and nationalities.

He dubbed Papua New Guineans cannibals, suggested that "part-Kenyan" Barack Obama had an ancestral dislike of Britain and last year compared Muslim women who wear face-covering veils to "letterboxes." He has described Hillary Clinton as a "sadistic nurse in a mental hospital".

It would be unsurprising if his relationship with the Scottish First Minister is no more than cordial.

In one newspaper column, he has likened Nicola Sturgeon to a fox in a henhouse, a jewel thief, King Herod, and a "voracious weasel". And he hardly offered a soothing balm to Anglo-Irish relations when he was reported to have said of Leo Varadkar: "Why isn't he called Murphy like all the rest of them?"

Bien pensant liberals may wring their hands, but none of these comments seem to dent Johnson's popularity.

Like many other entertainer politicians, Johnson has varied his pitch over the years - veering from outward-looking liberal to hardline right-winger - depending on the audience and the necessity to win votes.

The new prime minister once declared that he had no convictions - apart from an old one for speeding.

As he walked into Downing Street, pundits were wondering which version of Johnson they would get. Just as Trump was once a supporter of the Democrats, Johnson seems to have had mixed views on the EU over the years.

When the idea of quitting the EU was being floated in 2013, Johnson said he would vote to stay in the single market.

"I'm in favour of the single market. I want us to be able to trade freely with our European friends and partners," he said.

More recently he claimed that staying in the single market would be "ludicrous" and turn Britain into a "colony".

"I am not by any means an ultra-Eurosceptic - in some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union," he told the House of Commons back in 2003. "If we did not have one, we would invent something like it."

He joined the campaign to quit the EU came relatively late in the day, and ever since there has been speculation that his championing of the Eurosceptic cause was an act of pure political opportunism. By condemning the EU and all its works, he has succeeded in winning over the Tory grassroots.

According to one London acquaintance who met him after him the referendum to discuss the practicalities, there is no grand plan or vision for Brexit. "He gave the impression that he was winging it," said the acquaintance.

There were hopes that once the campaign to win over the right-wing members of the Tory party was over that Boris the barnstorming Brexiteer would tone down the Brussels bashing and seek compromise with that half of the UK that wants to remain in the EU.

Johnson had said years ago that he might have a crack at being prime minister "if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum".

And once he achieved his ambition on Wednesday, he went in with his studs up, purging his cabinet of Remainers and not showing any inclination to compromise with Dublin and Brussels on the Border question.

While he is frequently compared to Trump, Johnson prefers to model himself on Winston Churchill, who was also a consummate showman, who had suffered many setbacks and failures in his career.

Like Churchill battling through World War II, he will portray himself as a man fighting a European menace.

But with Boris and his allies fixated on a no-deal scenario, and both Britain and Ireland facing the prospect of a damaging economic downturn as a result, men and women in the future are unlikely to say: "This was their finest hour."

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