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Angela Tilby: Rise and fall of Boris Johnson is a parable for us all

22 March 2024


THE recent Channel 4 documentaries about Boris Johnson have been gripping television, giving substance to the claim, usually attributed to Philip L. Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, that journalism is the first rough draft of history.

Four episodes have charted Johnson’s rise and fall, reminding us of the tumultuous years that we have just lived through: the Brexit campaign; the 2016 referendum with its unexpected outcome; the resulting struggles for the leadership and soul of the Conservative Party; the 2019 election and the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn; and then the horrors of Covid, from which we are still emerging.

Mr Johnson’s rise and fall has characteristics of both tragedy and farce. The tragedy is the classic issue of a gifted public figure destroyed by irredeemable character flaws; the farce is, well, “Boris”: his tubby, needy, comic-book self, and the extraordinary power of that self to amuse, enlist, seduce, and deceive.

Some of the most interesting reflections on Mr Johnson came from unexpected sources. Jennifer Arcuri, often presented by the press as a dizzy entrepreneurial sexpot, came across as psychologically insightful and astute on the childhood sources of Mr Johnson’s instability. Nigel Farage suggested that Mr Johnson had never really wanted Brexit, and had no idea what to do with it when he got it. And Mr Corbyn, who lost so spectacularly to Mr Johnson, had measured things to say about the dangers of subverting Parliament. The message, in a sentence, was that we should be aware of elevating those whose needs for love and acclamation are not matched by their moral insight.

Yet the rise and fall of Mr Johnson is also a parable for all of us. Our society has got into a dangerous habit of idolising celebrity, of elevating those who know how to press our buttons, who make us laugh, or who promise us an easy deliverance from struggle and mediocrity. We have come to believe that it is more important to be something than to do something.

To me, this runs counter to biblical and Christian insights about vocation, and marks the loss of Christian influence in political life. God does not call the over-ambitious, the fame-driven, or those whose charm is a projection of self-love. Biblical leaders (think of Abraham, Moses, Miriam, Samuel, David, John the Baptist, Peter, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene) often seem surprised to be called by God. With the call comes a task, a commission, for which they often feel inadequate.

True leaders are humble — and they are often the ones who genuinely get things done. Mr Johnson’s era was not without its successes: the development and rollout of the Covid vaccine was one of them. But he is a warning, too, not so much for what he did, or failed to do, but for what he told us about ourselves. I look forward to a duller leadership.

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