IN A meeting behind closed doors, Boris Johnson temporarily calmed the unsettled nerves of Conservative MPs with a three-point plan. He undertook to set up a policy forum to ensure that he took better account of backbench opinion. He promised to bring back the election-winning strategist Sir Lynton Crosby. And he pledged that, from now on, “things would change.” It was enough, supporters said, to head off any imminent challenge to his leadership.
Most intriguingly, in the meeting, he compared himself to Othello, saying that he always sees the best in people, unlike his Iago, Dominic Cummings, a man of “motiveless malignity”. The comparison suggests that the Prime Minister’s knowledge of the play is somewhat sketchy. Othello, you may recall, breaks up a drunken party and sacks the chief reveller. When he discovers, after he has been tricked into murdering his wife, what a fool he has made of himself, he falls on his sword. And, at the end of the play, Iago is the one who is left alive. The parallels with Downing Street seem rather limited.
Twitter had a field day with the comparison, asking whether anyone knew what had happened to Mr Johnson’s previous wives, or suggesting that this PM seemed more like Toby Belch or even Bottom. One literary type reminded us that T. S. Eliot called Othello a self-dramatising criminal egoist who attempts to evade reality. Another pointed out that Shakespeare’s tragic heroes had only one flaw; “so that rules Johnson out.” None of this augurs well for the quality of Mr Johnson’s much-trumpeted forthcoming book on the Bard.
Previously, I have predicted here that we are spectators at Waiting for Sue Gray, a two-act play in which nothing happens, twice (21 January). But it now seems more likely that we are watching The Rise and Fall of Bloviating Boris, a full five-act farce that is to be dragged out with a Keystone Cops comic interlude from the ham-fisted Metropolitan Police, a reprise of Ms Gray, the local elections in May, and then a dénouement in which the drip-drip desertion of Tory stalwarts finally achieves critical mass.
In the course of this, Mr Johnson will shuffle round some civil servants, usher in some specious reforms, review a couple of codes of conduct, and turn the Prime Minister’s office into the Office of the Prime Minister run by a Permanent Secretary rather than a political one — cheekily announcing, as one wag put it, that he is clearing up the chaos that he himself created.
The truth is, of course, that, once he had got his Sorry out of the way in the Commons, Mr Johnson’s ill-judged bombast showed that he was not about to change in any fundamental way. The only reform that Mr Johnson could introduce which might repair the damage that he has done to the integrity of his party and our wider political system would involve his resignation.
He could go, perhaps, with a flourish, borrowing a quote from Othello: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” Somehow, I think, the end will more probably come when Conservative MPs, or the electorate, take a leaf from Julius Caesar.