Addled minds under the blond sun
We're witnessing Boris Johnson's media rehabilitation beginning in real-time...
Previously: Fleet Street’s Hot Dog Suit Shortage
The rehabilitation has begun before the removal vans have even been booked. Moments after Boris Johnson finished his not-quite-a-resignation speech on the steps of No. 10, Beth Rigby told Sky News viewers that he had shown “great dignity” and praised him as “a good writer [who] gives good oratory”. I suppose the bitter rambling lines spouted by the Prime Minister could be considered dignified in so far as his trousers didn’t fall down to the sound of the swanee whistle.
There are three main threads at work in the coverage of Boris Johnson’s resignation:
A concerted effort to establish him as an aberration to persuade people that the rest of his party, who nodded along like pooches on a parcel shelf until the very last moment, are good and sensible people.
An assertion that Johnson is a brilliant man laid low by tragic flaws
The building of a betrayal myth.
Presumably, Allison Pearson at The Telegraph has been struck in the head with a spade since her June 28th column headlined All Boris Johnson delivers is empty promises… or perhaps she’s just realised he’s likely to be her colleague again shortly.
With the required level of tactical amnesia, the ‘Boris’ fan fiction writer of old — the one who told her readers that “the health of Boris Johnson is the health of the body politic and, by extension, the health of the nation itself" when he was hospitalised — has returned. Beneath the headline In the end he was his own worst enemy, but Boris’s heroic legacy is secure she simpers:
“Them’s the breaks,” he said with a ghost of a smile. Only Boris. Only Boris would make that wry, colloquial quip in the middle of a historic speech.
Not for him the grim sententiousness of all those “It is with deep sadness” letters from colleagues which eventually brought him down. (The Westminster branch of Boots must have sold out of sachets of crocodile tears.) Not for him the note of humility called for by sanctimonious Starmer and other critics.
…The mistake, I think, was to ever regard Boris Johnson as a normal, contemporary politician. He was a classicist with a heroic sense of destiny. “They can conquer who believe they can.” Virgil. It is a tragedy, in the true classical sense, that such blazing self-belief, which changed our island story forever, also turned out to be his fatal flaw. Harnessed by Dominic Cummings (who stupidly was replaced as controller of the wayward leader by the jejune and green, in every sense, Carrie) it could have been a remarkable force for good.
Carrie Johnson, green in every sense, like Kermit the frog with more expensive tastes in wallpaper but an equally unwise penchant for romancing pigs, Boots selling “sachets of crocodile tears”, and Boris Johnson “like Gulliver in Lilliput”; in the miasma of Pearson’s appalling writing you can discern an entire alternate reality. And in her conclusion, you can see the whole arc of Johnson’s coming rehabilitation:
Whatever snidery the political obituarists are busy scribbling, Boris Johnson was adored in a way that politicians rarely are, and in a way the metropolitan media class never began to understand. Even those of us who eventually came to the conclusion that he had to go, for the sake of our party and country, may now feel a shaft of sadness. Of a blond sun going out.
In the coming days, it would be good if people could bear in mind that our soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister is a human being with feelings to be hurt, not a Mr Punch puppet to be bashed for sport. Most of us, I’m sure, will wish Boris Johnson well for the future while forever being grateful to him for Brexit. Only Boris. His legacy is secure.
Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo. No day shall erase you from the memory of time. Virgil.
A “shaft of sadness” sounds like how E.L. James would describe Christian Grey’s penis during a particularly melancholy shag, and the image of “a blond sun going out” suggests an even more cursed Tellytubbies reboot.
The word “us” is a weasel word in the hands of columnists. Allison Pearson may wish Boris Johnson well and think that a saccharine appeal about his humanity will wash, but those of us with fully functioning object permanence won’t forget so quickly. I’m just surprised she didn’t end by quoting Virgil from Thunderbirds.
Such is the limited imagination displayed by British columnists that Pearson’s not the only one to reach for a Gulliver’s Travels analogy. In The Daily Mail, Richard Littlejohn howls Gulliver has fallen... Boris Johnson has been downed by a devil's bargain between a pro-EU Blob and Lilliputian nobodies doing his best to bolster the betrayal narrative set up by the paper’s front page (What the hell have they done?)
Elsewhere in the paper, Sarah Vine is still getting copy out of her association with her ex-husband Michael Gove, relating what her teenagers said about their father’s defenestration with her usual indecent haste:
The teenagers and I were watching Love Island when the news broke — a text, to my son, from a mate: 'Is it true that Boris has fired ur dad?!'
A split second later, my phone also pinged. It was my friend Rachel (Johnson, Boris's sister): 'My bro has just fired your ex!!' Blimey, I thought. Even I wasn't expecting that.
Suddenly, the surgically-enhanced tonsil hockey at Casa Amor didn't seem quite so gripping.
'Get him on speakerphone, get him on speakerphone!' squealed my daughter. So we got him on speakerphone (Michael, not Boris). What on earth happened?
It’s a “needless to say, I had the last laugh” column with Vine pulling out an anecdote about Johnson being bollocked by Gove after being unprepared for an event 20 years ago and concluding:
… the incident sticks in my mind because a) I had never seen Michael so angry and b) it is emblematic of Johnson's biggest problem, one that lies at the root of all his troubles: he just can't take anything seriously.
You see, she knew all along, it’s just that it was terribly expedient to get behind him while her bosses were so keen on him. Not that anyone tells her what to write, you understand or that it’s still in her interests to assure the readers that Gove “[demands] honesty and integrity… [and] leads by example”.
Philip L. Graham’s maxim that “journalism is the first rough draft of history” is one of those lines that hacks love to quote to each other and in The Sun, that rough draft is being sketched out in crayon. Its leader column, desperate to justify the paper’s many hum job headlines for Boris Johnson, claims:
But Boris Johnson is a giant figure in our nation’s story, the most significant politician since Margaret Thatcher.
That is not merely our belief. It is a fact. He changed Britain for the better long before he took office and can boast of huge achievements in power too.
The “citation needed” flag here should be the size of the Hollywood sign. The Sun’s claim that it is “keeping an open mind” about who should succeed Johnson is best read as “Rupert hasn’t told us yet”.
Over at The Times — The Sun with a larger thesaurus — James Forsyth, best friend of and best man to former Chancellor turned Tory leadership candidate Rishi Sunak, says the Tories can recover if they quash Boris Johnson’s myths. Who propagated those myths and why do they all have Spectator bylines and/or invites to its summer party?
The myths of Boris Johnson’s intelligence, his specialness, and his charisma are media constructions and ones that even at the moment of his apparent downfall they are still propagating. Despite the evidence of our ears and eyes and the existence of such speeches for the ages as “that Peppa Pig one” we’re told he’s a brilliant orator.
It’s necessary for Johnson’s end to be framed as a Greek tragedy and for superlatives to still be tossed in his direction because to do otherwise would mean the newspapers and commentators who bolstered him for so long would have to admit they are as ridiculous and self-serving as him.
Figures who parroted Johnson’s positions and stood behind him through scandal after scandal will be allowed to rebrand as “serious” people because the true function of the Conservative Party — as a machine to transfer public money to private interests, a psychopathic squid squatting on the face of the nation — must never and can never be fully acknowledged.
Those people who stayed up to witness “the Portillo moment” when Michael Portillo lost his seat in 1997 could never have imagined he’d be reinvented as a train-riding ‘national treasure’. He never should have been. But the same thing will happen with Boris Johnson. Already a media figure before his rise in politics, Johnson will be welcomed back into the fold. We are already watching his rehabilitation being engineered in real-time.
As an idiot once said: Them’s the breaks.
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