'Boris' doesn't exist.
Hacks helped create the myth and even now they can't quite let it go.
Previously | Bodyslamming Boris: Partygate? It's pro-wrestling...
‘Boris’ doesn’t exist.
I don’t mean just that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the 57-year-old man, born in New York City and, for now, resident in Number 10 Downing Street, chose to be called “Boris” when he started at Eton in the autumn of 1977.
Nor do I mean only that ‘Boris’, the character brought to full public fruition during a 24 April 1998 edition of Have I Got News For You, is a political fiction.
I mean the ‘Boris’ created by Johnson and the ‘Boris’ presented by the press which incubated him equally do not exist. ‘Boris’ supporters and detractors have a unified theme: That this man is extraordinary.
Even as Johnson’s administration teeters like the coach at the end of the Italian Job with ‘Boris’ clambering to regain the loot, the story being told is one of big human failings and tragic flaws. But what if he’s just a mediocre man who has been served well by a myth that he created and others have indulged?
What if the man who his family call ‘Al’ — “A man walks down the street/He says, “Why’s my polling soft in the middle, now?” — has, via Eton, Oxford and over two decades of mythologising of his own and from ‘interested’ observers, been allowed to cosplay as exceptional?
In September 2018 — 9 months before the Tory Party leadership contest which gave birth to the Johnson premiership — Sunday Times deputy editor Sarah Baxter wrote a column that’s been lodged in my mind’s disordered library of toxic takes ever since. The print headline hollered, “Give Boris his shot at the top job. He’s earned it,” and beneath it, Baxter argued…
All the insults — that he’s lazy, unfaithful, unscrupulous or, God forbid, ambitious — are insufficient to deny Johnson the chance he has earned.
… and, after an accounting of affairs and unacknowledged children, shrugged off his permanent split from Marina Wheeler:
If his divorce is a clearing-of-the-decks exercise before a leadership challenge, at least he can say that his family stayed together for 25 years.
In the ‘Boris’ myth, other MPs — perhaps all other men? — were simply “horribly envious of [his] ability to brush off infidelities that have felled many a Pecksniff.”
It was Johnson’s turn, she argued, claiming the electorate would “feel cheated” if they weren’t given the opportunity to vote for ‘Boris’ and that “under Johnson’s leadership, Brexit [had] the potential to be more enjoyable, dynamic process…” And boy, hasn’t it been a hoot?
On July 24 2019, the day Johnson became Prime Minister, Peter Oborne — who has since recanted his ‘Boris’ boosterism — wrote that the “many people [who] dismissed [Boris] as a buffoon and a charlatan” were motivated “mainly by envy”. He claimed that:
Behind the bluster there has always been a brilliant man.
Even when he was still a working journalist 20 years ago, it was obvious that he had a dazzling future.
Oborne, who has since catalogued Johnson’s long history of lies and recognised his moral emptiness even in that Mail piece, knew in 2019 the “brilliance” of ‘Boris’ was a myth. But he still propagated it. Johnson’s journalistic career began with a made-up quote put in the mouth of his own godfather that got him sacked from The Times and progressed from spinning distortions in Brussels to columns flecked with racist, homophobia, misogyny and deceitful spite.
The Daily Telegraph’s archest opportunist Allison Pearson — I do know how she does it… lies! — wrote one of the strangest extensions of the ‘Boris’ myth when the dear leader hospitalised with Covid. After opening with Hallmark movie weepy dialogue…
How is Boris? For millions of people, that was our first thought upon waking yesterday. And our last thought before we fell asleep the night before. The prospect of losing our Prime Minister was profoundly shocking. “He won’t die, will he?” a friend texted at 11.18pm. “My heart will break.”
… Pearson made a stab at convening the Church of the Immaculate ‘Boris’:
Yet, make no mistake, the health of Boris Johnson is the health of the body politic and, by extension, the health of the nation itself.
Of course, Pearson is now high priestess of the Covid conspiracists and has since recanted her love for The Telegraph’s once and future king… until the editorial line swings back towards him when he’s back on the market and back under contract to the remaining Barclay brother.
In May 2021, Janice Turner in The Times provided another outbreak of near religiosity about ‘Boris’, a tribute to his self-resurrecting powers headlined Why Johnson will always get away with it. She wrote of wallpapergate — which is now simply a prequel to partygate — that:
Nobody believes the PM, with his filthy car and ill-fitting suits, cares if his wallpaper is wood chip or bespoke.
On one level his fiancée running up a gargantuan decor bill is “Carrie Antoinette” (a brilliant coinage which steers blame from Boris and will stick). On another, she’s your sister-in-law Lorraine who went bonkers doing her kitchen extension, so your brother had to take out a loan.
Her conclusion takes on a different meaning now:
No one wants to listen to a pursed-lip puritan before the party — they’d rather dance with the messy bitch.
Obviously, the praise and the sense of ‘Boris’ as an extraordinary politician, a bumptious balloon able to defy political gravity, was going to be punctured as his usefulness faded, but the other side is almost as troublesome.
The way stories of misdemeanours and malfeasance on the part of ‘Boris’ are reported make him something more than a squalid and grubby creature of spite, guile, and self-interest. He is painted as a Mephistopheles with a mop-top, a very special sort of malignancy in the body politic, a unique infestation rather than representative of a more general rot in the system.
It suits the strata of hyperventilating, performative meme campaigners who emerged around Brexit to present ‘Boris’ as more than a symptom. Like fans of Line of Duty who desperately needed the mastermind ‘H’ to be revealed as a striking and peculiar evil only to find out that it was bumbling Ian Buckles all along, there are a lot of people who need ‘Boris’ to be the monster who falls.
The reality is more prosaic. Johnson wanted to be Prime Minister (or “world king” as an endlessly recounted anecdote from his childhood has it) and ‘Boris’ was the vehicle for getting there. His 80-seat majority was achieved by pitting the best version of the ‘Boris’ myth against the worst possible framing of the ‘Jeromony Crobyn’ villain.
Johnson is not extraordinary. He is, as Eddie Mair famously pegged him in a 2013 encounter, “a nasty piece of work” — but in the way that so many liars, charlatans and chancers are. He simply had the advantages of Eton, Oxford, a profession willing to burnish his myth, and the good timing to arrive at a point in history where bullshit is at its most viable as a currency.
Even as his equally opportunistic colleagues in the Conservative Party look set to bin ‘Boris’, the character is irresistible to the press.
In today’s Times, Helen Rumbelow delivered a long piece of fannish fiction about ‘Boris’ and ‘Carrie’, the character played by the Conservative comms operator formerly known as Carrie Simmonds, headlined The Boris and Carrie Johnson show: 904 days of chaos. Written in novelistic style and referencing the “many exhausting storylines since he arrived”, it’s a clumsy attempt at humanising and excusing, the ‘Boris’ behind the ‘Boris’:
Here are the rooms where a staffer is reported to have found Carrie in tears over the near-death of her unborn baby’s father. The stairs that Carrie, recovering from childbirth, trudged down, to serve the invalid Boris his food, before returning to look after tiny Wilfred. The stairs, where Carrie was so depleted she had to sit down on them to regain energy for the walk back up.
Even the dog, Dilyn, adopted by Carrie a few months after she moved in, is a kind of spirit animal of its male master, a scruffy and libidinous survivor, a Jack Russell cross saved from euthanasia, dressed occasionally in a Union Jack coat, who has a reputation for urinating on or attempting to mate with objects in his path.
‘Boris’ is refashioned in this retelling of the myth as “a scruffy and libidinous survivor” psychically yoked to his dog — a prop purchased to further add to the impression of the new, improved happy family — and presumably as likely to attempt to lick his own genitals.1
Johnson’s inevitable lies, his pathetic deceptions, must be something bigger in the myth of ‘Boris’ so we are fed lines like…
Who would guess that it would be Johnson’s very own back garden that would become a crime scene where he might be trapped at last?
… and Rumblelow reaches across to Tom McTague’s Atlantic profile of ‘Boris’ from last year:
[He told the interviewer] he had just read Tender Is the Night, by F Scott Fitzgerald, a study of marriage and thwarted ambition. Johnson described the lead character, Dick Diver2, as a man who had superficial charm but threw away his success. (As an aside, in the book the hero opines: “I am tired of knowing nothing and being reminded of it all the time.”) This is the same interview in which Johnson talked of the importance of storytelling in politics — not lies, but rather “narrative”.
That’s why the ‘Boris’ character appeals to journalists so much: Firstly, the rise of one of their own makes them secretly wonder if they could do it and secondly, the prospect that he’s about to fall just as swiftly as he rose really puts a bit of pep into the old schadenfreude.
Detecting an end to this chapter of the ‘Boris’ narrative, McTague has penned a sequel of sorts to his profile. The Party’s Over, written with The Atlantic’s mainly American audience in mind, begins with a striking image about a striking image:
In Boris Johnson’s office at 10 Downing Street, a vista of London hangs above the fireplace. The work was painted by his mother, Charlotte Wahl, who died four months ago at the age of 79, having lived long enough to see her son become prime minister and then win an election by such a margin that it seemed to have ushered in a new era in British politics: the Johnson era.
… When Johnson was young, Wahl had a mental breakdown that resulted in her spending months in a London hospital, while her children remained in Brussels. Wahl’s deep grief about this is expressed in a series of paintings that she produced during her stay at the Maudsley hospital. In one haunting image, Wahl depicts her and her husband, Stanley, along with their four children, all of them dangling by their arms with scared looks on their faces. The painting is titled The Johnson Family Hanged by Circumstances.
He also rightly notes that “Johnson’s Watergate—“Partygate,” as it is now known—is low-grade, cheap, and almost pathetic in its smallness” but the problems begin when he claims that it features “all the same ingredients of tragedy, weakness, folly, and natural justice.”
After dedicating thousands of words to ‘Boris’ last year, calling him “the minister of chaos”, McTague needs the narrative — there’s that word again — to be about something more than a mediocre man whose lies finally stop working. So after searching Johnson’s writing for clues about what ‘Boris’ will do next — particularly an essay where he discussed kings — McTague reaches for a dramatic close:
Whether he likes it or not, Johnson is now the evil king in the great Partygate scandal. That story has been written. As such, he is now close to his end, for the sake of a national rebirth from this sordid tale of contempt. Johnson can only hope that he survives long enough to eventually distract voters with a different story altogether. That won’t be easy.
But ‘Boris’ is not a fairytale character. He is a fairly ordinary chancer whose lies are simply played out on a larger scale than those of most bad bosses, fathers, and unfaithful husbands.
Yes, yes, I know I did a variant of this joke yesterday.
Sometimes the jokes write themselves so I’ll leave you to fill one in here. Ooh err.