HISTORY repeats itself, Karl Marx said, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. It’s hard to imagine the Queen sharing much of a world-view with the intellectual progenitor of Communism. But as she looks back, from her Platinum vantage point, over the 14 prime ministers who have served under her, it must be hard for her to resist a Marxian judgement on the current holder of that office, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.
Marx coined the phrase in comparing the great Emperor Napoleon with his puny nephew Louis Napoleon, later Napoleon III. But the Queen would be more likely to have in mind her first and latest prime ministers: Sir Winston Churchill and Boris Johnson. “Every giant . . . presupposes a dwarf, every genius a hidebound philistine,” Marx also wrote. “The first are too great for this world, and so they are thrown out. But the latter strike root in it, and remain.”
Farce is an ambiguous term. In the theatre, it is characterised by highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters, extravagant exaggeration, and violent horseplay — features all too resonant in our contemporary politics — not to mention the trouser-dropping activities of a Brian Rix farce. But, in politics, the dictionary speaks of affairs that are ludicrously futile or insincere, a hollow pretence, or a mockery.
Mr Johnson’s buffoonery was once part of his attraction to the electorate. Disillusioned voters saw his cavalier, laddish, devil-may-care attitude as a way of giving two fingers to conventional politics. But the joke must have worn thin for the Queen in whose name he purports to serve.
Mr Johnson is the only British prime minister who has been forced to apologise to the monarch on two separate occasions. Early on, he was found by both the Scottish Court of Sessions and the UK Supreme Court to have misled the Queen when he asked her to shut down Parliament for five weeks to silence MPs who opposed his hardline Brexit plans. The Queen, despite her private disquiet, was constitutionally obliged to assent to the dishonest prorogation.
Then he had to grovel to the Queen again when it was found that not one but two parties were held in Downing Street — involving suitcases of booze, blaring music, and drunken dancing — while the rest of the nation mourned on the eve of the funeral of her husband of 73 years.
Characteristically, Mr Johnson offered to waive Covid restrictions to allow more than 30 mourners at the funeral. Characteristically, the Queen declined the offer “on the grounds she wanted to set an example rather than be an exception to the rules”. Instead, she was photographed, sitting entirely alone in the royal pew, in what became an iconic image of the many of her subjects who had endured lonely funerals (News, 23 April 2021).
In contrast, the emblematic image of Mr Johnson published this week showed him carousing at a Downing Street party, before a table stacked with wine bottles, at a time when the rest of us were locked in isolation.
The Queen is famously discreet about her views on political matters. But she could be forgiven for privately wishing that she will see a 15th prime minister before the end of her reign.