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Angela Tilby: Will a joker PM have the last laugh?

07 May 2021


Boris Johnson talks to customers in the beer garden during a visit to The Mount pub and restaurant in Wolverhampton, last month

Boris Johnson talks to customers in the beer garden during a visit to The Mount pub and restaurant in Wolverhampton, last month

EVEN as I reluctantly cast my vote for Labour in the last General Election, a large part of me was expecting that Boris Johnson would win. And, as I contemplated that likelihood, a little voice said in the back of my mind, “At least he will make us laugh.” This, of course, was before Brexit and before Covid, before the Prime Minister’s own near-death experience, the installation of his fiancée in the Downing Street flat, and the birth of his son, Wilfred.

And, through all the triumph and trauma, Mr Johnson has, indeed, done his best to make us laugh. He knows that we love a bumbling clown, that we approve of his unfashionable tubbiness, the haystack hair, the flailing paws, the verbal waffle with its little runs of cleverness interspersed with crafted inarticulacy.

The only time that I remember him being truly statesmanlike was when he warned us, at the beginning of the first lockdown, that many people were going to die. For once, he met the moment and looked, briefly, like a real leader.

But it did not last. He has got by because he delivered Brexit, which mattered so much more than urban liberals like myself could ever have imagined. Brexit has ensured that he has, so far, been forgiven for most of his mistakes.

We love a rogue, of course, and Mr Johnson is a genuine English rogue. He is a contemporary Robin Hood, except the men around him are not merry, and he is more likely to take from the poor than the rich.

Not being particularly competent, he appoints bullies and charmers, easily replaceable, to do the real job. We know he lies, and yet we shrug, “It’s just Boris.” We tolerate his affairs because we are amused that a fat man can still triumph in the sex department. There’s hope for us all.

So, Mr Johnson helps us to excuse our own fallibility. He is the first Prime Minister in living memory with a total blank in the religion box. His success shows that we no longer care for leaders who are guided by transcendent values. Morality is à la carte: you can opt, if you so wish, for personal rectitude or social justice, but not both, and Mr Johnson’s casual relationship to truth demonstrates that self-interest is OK. After all, even though we know what he’s like, he has still managed to roll out the vaccines and come back from the nearly dead. He has proved that amorality combined with clownishness is a winning combination.

Yet, in recent days, Boris the joker has displayed both anger and vulnerability. Some predict that his current problems are a blip, and that he will be in power for years. Others see the beginning of the end. We all know we fell for a clown, but the jury is out on who will have the last laugh.

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