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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Bad jokes and diplomatic gaffes aside, Boris Johnson could well become UK prime minister

His secret is an unfailing ability to seize the headlines, writes Alan Philps

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

With his trademark mop of blond hair, Boris Johnson is one of the world’s most recognisable politicians who has not achieved high office as president or prime minister. His fame does not come from performance in government. As British foreign secretary, he has not notched up any great successes, but he is known more for undiplomatic witticisms that have left foreign audiences appalled or uncomprehending.

His secret is an unfailing ability to seize the headlines. For the past three weeks he has dominated the news, with only one question on everybody’s lips: when is he going to engineer the downfall of Theresa May, the UK prime minister, and take her place?

This is an odd debate, particularly as the country is struggling with how to leave the European Union and on what terms, following last year’s referendum.

Mr Johnson sees himself as the “godfather of Brexit”, despite having been in two minds about which side to campaign for. He opted for Leave and became its most public face, but then baulked at taking responsibility for the potentially disastrous consequences, and ruled himself out of the contest to be prime minister.

But the Conservatives still love Boris, as he is universally known (even though his first name is Alexander and his family call him Al). In the run-up to the party’s annual conference, he repeatedly undermined Mrs May, dominating the news agenda and making her look weak for not sacking him. Then on Tuesday the wowed the conference with a barnstorming speech in which he declared undying loyalty to her, earning a standing ovation.

Later, when asked about Libya at a fringe meeting, he declared that the town of Sirte, which was liberated from the grip of ISIL at the cost of hundreds of casualties among the government forces, could become the next Dubai.

He added as a cheeky aside, “The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away”, prompting outrage at his “crass, callous and cruel” throwaway humour.

Mr Johnson is often seen as a uniquely British phenomenon, but it makes sense to view him as a model for our age, where major political parties are turning into zombies.

This is certainly the case for the Conservatives, who are staggering around incapable of deciding how to achieve Brexit without beggaring the country. In France, the leading parties of left and right imploded in the presidential election. In the US, Donald Trump used his skills as a reality TV star to take over the empty shell of the Republican party.

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Electoral politics seems to have reached a new stage where the balance between performance and policy has shifted alarmingly in favour of hucksterism.

Already, before Mr Trump’s first year is out, serious thought is being given to the lack of TV-nurtured talent in the Democrats to unseat him in 2020. In these uncertain times, it is no surprise that the conservative commentator John Podhoretz has proposed Oprah Winfrey, queen of daytime TV in the US, as the Trump-slayer.

The pundit argued: “America is discarding old approaches in politics. Democrats will have to do the same to match the mood to the moment.”

This mood is not totally new. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan used his talents as a movie actor to make Americans feel good about themselves. In the 1990s, Silvio Berlusconi, four-time prime minister of Italy, paved the way for the rascal-style of politics, with off-colour jokes and narcissistic displays of wealth.

But what was exceptional is now mainstream. In Britain, Alastair Campbell, the spokesman for Tony Blair and the original spin doctor, blames the media for focusing only on politicians who are “controversial or weird”, ignoring the merely competent.

One of the biggest problems of the last government, he says, was that two of the most high-profile cabinet members were journalists – Mr Johnson, star writer for the Telegraph, and Michael Gove, a columnist for The Times, married to a columnist for the Daily Mail – who continued to operate as headline creators.

There is an element of truth here. But how do you explain the popularity of Bernie Sanders, the 76-year-old socialist who fought Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of the British Labour party who at the age of 68 is worshipped by young party members? These two are the opposite of the flip-flopping Mr Johnson. They take pride in cleaving to policies long abandoned by the mainstream, and stand firm against consensus advice to move to the centre.

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Their appeal lies in part in the fact that they are comfortable in their own skins, a feeling that projects authenticity. You can say the same about Mr Johnson. However confected his populism – he is a scholar of Latin and Greek with a fine mind – he always appears in the same guise, and can be relied on to deliver a dose of the humour which the English require to dilute seriousness. He is comfortable in the skin of an old Etonian.

These qualities – an aura of authenticity and the ability to perform before the voters – are in demand because in a 24-hour news cycle politicians are expected to promise the earth while the voters know that in a globalised world, they cannot change much. Even Mr Trump has discovered that. He has not delivered the steak he promised, but he still offers plenty of sizzle.

You could argue that the western world now lives comfortably, and there is no need for statesmen such Franklin D Roosevelt on whom millions of Americans relied to get the country back on its feet after the Great Depression. These days, that job is done by a technocratic central banker who speaks in riddles. Hence the need for a court jester.

How long can politics as play-acting last? Perhaps until the western world is struck by a real catastrophe. Until that time comes, Mr Johnson could become prime minister of the United Kingdom.

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